Specialist learning provision in Leeds turns to radio, celebrities and entrepreneurism to make sure students didn't miss out in lockdown
When the coronavirus pandemic led to school closures, provision for youngsters outside of mainstream was hit particularly hard.
Children were separated from classroom colleagues, friendships were almost taken away and with the use of remote learning not as viable an option as it is for mainstream schools, staff at the West Specialist Inclusive Learning Centre had to think again about how they could devise and deliver a curriculum for their students who have conditions which range from autism, downs syndrome, aspergers, cerebral palsy, physical disabilities and development delay.
One of the main issues was that students from the West SILCs five sites couldn't mix as they were more vulnerable to the effects of COVID than most young people and activities like going to the shops, which is an important part of their development, had to be put on hold.
So students from the Powerhouse site in Spring Bank Mills at Farsley, a 16 to 19 years-old provision, started making radio shows which could be played back to the other sites at Stanningley, the Co-op Academy at Priesthorpe, Farnley Academy and Hollybush Primary School.
It started in an office next to the toilets but is now being recorded in a kitted out soundbooth and has even had input from actor Stephen Fry, David Jason, Brian Blessed and sports stars Gary Lineker and the Brownlee Brothers.
James Paylor is a teacher at The Powerhouse site.
He said: "We are always trying to come up with creative ideas and this year we have had to do a lot of things in-house. We have other sites and the radio show gives us an opportunity to record messages and jokes, keep everybody linked together and feeling like they are involved in things going on. We were in an office next to the toilet but there was the water going off and we would have to stop and then start recording again."
Using a laptop and a microphone the show is recorded in a podcast style and played back to the other sites. Staff also managed to secure some messages from famous names including Billy Pearce, Stephen Fry, David Jason, Gary Lineker, the Brownlees and Brian Blessed.
Rob Lakewood is the leader of Post 16 education and added: "The driving force was to make it feel like we had a school community. For students there are real issues about being able to maintain friendships at home so hearing their voices and being able to interact has been really important."
Gaining communication, life and work skills in the community is also invaluable to students at Powerhouse, but again, with this element being removed - staff had to think again about that.
So they decided to do that in-house too and tasked students with setting up their own mini businesses as well as securing extra premises where they can teach the teens how to fold and put away washing and make the bed, budget for supermarket shopping and base their businesses from.
Mr Paylor added: "When work experience got cancelled we decided to do it ourselves. Instead of going to placements and sometimes being given menial tasks because they don't understand (what the students needs are) we are setting up their enterprises."
Amongst the students there are now businesses in making home-fragrances, smoothie-making, car-washing, printing cards and some students are growing their own produce on an allotment which will be used in a cafe they are hoping to set up.
As COVID restrictions continue to be lifted it is hoped The Powerhouse can continue to build on the relationships it had started to form with local businesses.
Mr Lakewood said: "A lot of the time people with learning disabilities can be overlooked in society and we want to show that they have a valuable contribution to make. It is about students demonstrating to the community that they have these skills. So often we see disability but it does not fully explain their needs or skills and they get the door closed straight away.
"The general pattern for people with additional learning needs is that they will become isolated and won't access the community. For them to feel like they know someone from a cafe or a shop or a pizza restaurant, something as simple as that can be incredibly powerful and encourage them to step out."