Headteachers warning on pupils prospects

SUFFOLK is today leaving youngsters with learning difficulties out in the cold by limiting their prospects after they leave school, it has been claimed.

SUFFOLK is today leaving youngsters with learning difficulties out in the cold by limiting their prospects after they leave school, it has been claimed.

Headteachers at the three Ipswich special schools which cater for youngsters until their late teens today lifted the lid on fears for their students who are held back in adulthood because of a lack of opportunities in the county.

Suffolk County Council's social services department said it is working to develop opportunities for learning and within the workplace, but the schools say more must been done to get businesses and other sections of the community to realise the youngsters can be valuable assets.

Sue Chesworth, headteacher at Belstead Special School, Sprites Lane, said: “Some students go onto college and make good progress but then there are limited opportunities from that stage to go on to sheltered work.

“The likelihood is they won't get a job when they should go on learning and developing like the rest of us.

“The children have probably achieved an enormous amount up until that point but then, through no fault of their own, they become more dependent on their parents or carers than ever - when they should be becoming more independent.

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“Parents feel desperate, helpless, unsupported and isolated.

“The school puts a lot of work into preparing students for when they leave school, but there aren't opportunities for us to lead them onto.

“While at school, we are here to advocate for the youngsters to make sure they are getting help, but afterwards, parents feel very much on their own.”

The school is organising a reunion for students, partly as a social activity and partly to try and gauge what paths ex-pupils follow.

Many students go on to Suffolk College, Otley College or West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds, or resource centres.

However, the Suffolk County Council run Rosehill Resource Centre at Felixstowe Road, which many of the parents at Belstead use, will stop running in July as the lease on the building has run out.

Parents and carers are now having meetings to arrange alternative care.

Parents also run a club called Students That Acquire Recreational Stability (Stars) at the school once a week for former students.

It is a social group to give young people the chance to stay in contact with a group of friends.

Lilian Power, a psychologist and a governor at the school, said: “Once children have passed through the education system, they effectively drop into a black hole with very few employment or further training prospects.

“Those who have no prospect of employment, training or becoming active members of a community are looked after but those who, given the right support, could be employed or trained and have a sense of worth and engagement outside of their families, get very little.

“They become effectively invisible. And all the work that has been done at Belstead and other places to enable them to become active rather than passive recipients of care is effectively wasted.

“There is, I think, a huge cultural issue around about understanding and accepting the lives and values of people with learning difficulties once they pass the cuddly stage of childhood.”

David Stewart, headteacher at Beacon Hill School, Stone Lodge Lane West, which caters for youngsters aged five to 16, said: “The community has created a very high standard of education provision and we have got to the point where you say 'what's it all been for?'

“Any child or parent will tell you once they leave Beacon Hill, all they want is work. But the experience of work, giving them training, is not available in the 16 to 19 year olds' arena.

“We now want to engage with community employers and are trying to reframe their thinking. I've been meeting with business bosses and promoting our kids as valuable assets.

“The business community have to finish off all the hard work we put in at school.

“If the community pays money to educate these youngsters and then leaves them without work to claim benefits, what's the point?”

Nancy McArdle is headteacher at Thomas Wolsey School, Old Norwich Road, Ipswich, which caters for nursery to sixth form students, aged from three to 19 years old.

She said: “It's hard to find something which genuinely occupies and matches the skills of the youngsters.

“It seems that they drop off the end of the world once they get to a certain age - there are no progression routes for them.

“Even if they are on a full-time course at college, it may only be two or three days and parents have to find care for the times they are not in lectures.

“There's certainly a difficult burden for families once the youngsters leave school.”

n Are you a parent of a child with learning difficulties? What do you think? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

SUFFOLK County Council today said it was working with colleges and employers to increase opportunities for young people with learning difficulties.

Cheryl Sharland, head of transitions, works to create openings for youngsters with additional needs.

She said: “The fact my role was created is indicative of how much importance we place on it.

“We have a no limits team as we, along with the young people, believe there should be no limits to what young people can do despite disabilities.

“Young people start thinking about their future at 14, when they have a review at school.

“Our service helps them identify where they can get support from once they have chosen a path.

“We understand it can be daunting for parents and carers but help is there.

“For example, we provide bespoke learning packages for young people who have complex needs and can't go straight to further education colleges but don't want to stop learning.

“We are also working to make more vocational learning opportunities available, encouraging employers to give work experience. The council itself is increasing the number of people with additional needs it employs.

“There are also individual budgets available where young people when they reach adulthood to purchase the help they want.

“If they decide they want to work for a catering firm but are severely disabled, they can use the money for care to support them in the employment role.

“Just recently we secured European Social Funding to support 60 young people with additional needs obtain employment over the next 18 months.”

Case Study One, with pic

JUSTIN Smith, 21, is close to completing a further education course at Otley College.

His mother Sonia Stephens, who helps run the Stars activity group and is a school governor, said “his future looks gloomy”.

She added: “The resource centre he goes to is closing down and he is having to stop college as he can't achieve the next level.

“I don't want his learning to stop as he's still developing.

“He needs a supported work environment. These young people love routine and when it changes it changes everything for them.

“They need stability, stimulation and support, not to be isolated from the community and facilities.”

Justin, of Ipswich, went to Belstead Special School from when he was 11 to 19.

He can walk and understand speech, but has problems communicating back.

The college course he is doing is an enterprise course, where he makes and grows things to sell.

In the past he has also done packing work.

Case Study Two, with pic

MOTHER Michelle Parsons is concerned about the way funding is distributed.

Her son Jess, 20, has delayed global development and is unable to talk.

He attended Belstead Special School from the ages 11 to 19 but was not capable of going on to college - so was instead given a package of daytime care.

He goes to a centre run by the charity Mencap two days a week, and has a carer who takes him out and about three days a week.

Mrs Parsons, of Felixstowe, who is also governor at Belstead, said: “Jess now gets one-to-one care, something he never had at school.

“The question is, is that economic? If groups of youngsters could be together at school, why can't there be one place for them to go together after school, to save the county paying for one-to-one care for all of them.

“He would love to meet his peers everyday again as he's lost his friendship contacts.

“Parents who can send their children to college do so for a year or two, and then what? It's back to nowhere for them.”