How Green Was My Valley?


Specialist Colleges for Young Adults with LDD: Our Past or our Future?

I have been privileged to discover something about the kinds of provision that may be offered within the rarefied world of the Specialist College for young adults with learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LDD), most, if not all, under the protective arm of Natspec –

As I write this blog-post, the sun spreads its warmth through my study windows and BBC Radio 3 is playing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which seems most fitting, somehow.

I am pondering what part the specialist college may play in the mixed economy that is our provision for children and young people with special educational needs, post-the SEN Green Paper: Support and Aspiration. In doing so, I am trying to fathom if the ideals and values enshrined in such colleges, reflects our past or our future?

My knowledge of specialist colleges, of all the intricacies of their timetabling, their intake, their aspirations, their educational and vocational outcomes, is evolving. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ruskin Mill Educational Trust for opening my eyes to the wealth of opportunity that exists for many young people with LDD, post-16, and for inviting me to visit two of their specialist colleges , The Glasshouse College in Stourbridge, West Midlands and The Ruskin Mill College near Stroud, Gloucestershire. But to clarify, this blog is not a marketing pitch for either or a commissioned piece that will extol the virtues of both through rose-tinted spectacles. It is my observations and perceptions of what is happening to provision for young people with SEN/LDD as we rest on the precipice of a new order, post this long-awaited Green Paper.

How Green Was my Valley? I have taken the title of this blog from the1939 novel of the same name by Richard Llewellyn. That sense of nostalgia, for a golden era, for the halcyon days of a youth long past, seems fitting.  In the landscape and setting of these specialist colleges, enhanced as many are by vast acres of farm and woodland, how can we not say, how green is my valley?


The view at Ruskin Mill College, Gloucestershire, gives a glimpse of the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape and of the harmony that exists in abundance in the natural world, with the helping hand of man –

How do we harness the glory of our natural heritage for the good of our young people with LDD yet still meet the demands of those who distribute funding or who sit in judgement of its outcomes – the Young Person’s Learning Agency (YPLA) and Ofsted respectively?

NATSPEC (The Association of National Specialist Colleges) is a membership of over 70 independent specialist colleges providing ‘inclusive further education for learners with complex learning needs and/or disabilities.’ Independent Specialist Colleges (ISCs) provide FE for over 3,800 learners who require a personalised learning programme and multi-disciplinary specialism and support to make their transition to adult life.

Whilst NATSPEC’s membership is modest and its provision across its 70 colleges, would seem to represent a very small minority of our students with LDD, the aspirations of many of its member colleges are high, celestially so, in some cases. Talk of accessing ‘the four elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire through the three Kingdoms of Nature’ or of working with ‘hand, head, heart and place’ (Ruskin Mill Educational Trust – Vision, Values, Purpose and Method) abound in college literature. Frequently the influence of Rudolph Steiner, William Morris and others seeps through so that trying to understand the practicalities, of what actually happens, may be a slippery concept, something that detracts from the romantic rural idyll of these special places.

Yet ponder these matters I must.

The value of the specialist college in transforming lives

There is no doubting the value of the specialist college, that selection of the most appropriate educational placement, in transforming the lives of young people with LDD. I do not for one moment question that real transformations are taking place. What I query, perhaps, is how much difference this experience may make to the trajectory of that young person’s life, if after the three-year placement, the end outcome is a return to low-paid, subsistence level menial work, or at worst, a dependence on families, friends and the state for the next six decades of that person’s life?

How much more could be done for young people with recognized SEN /LDD if such experiences and placements, part-time or otherwise, could be made accessible at a much earlier stage in that person’s life – 14 – 16 years perhaps, or 11 – 16 years for some students?

What more could be done if, in addition to re-engaging students with learning and in that love of the land and purposeful work that is so enshrined in the values of many specialist colleges, there was also a redoubling of effort to achieve a higher level of academic skills, including business skills, so that the student left the placement with so much more than a craft or skill that, with the best of intentions, is little likely to lead to prosperity, despite the high price we attach to hand-made artisan goods.

It is a pity that the case studies provided by NATSPEC in ‘Celebrating Achievements’ have not included any student who has gone on to prosper, to earn their living, however precariously, by using the artisan skills they have acquired through their placement.

The American based site Common Good Market shows a remarkable dedication to promoting the work of many artisans and crafts people –  I do not know its equivalent in England, but this is surely inspirational stuff for the specialist colleges of England and Wales.

The co-founders of Common Good Products, Rick and Elizabeth Conrad, have, I believe in common with the ideals behind many specialist colleges, a notion that they are making a difference to the local economy, to driving social change by mindful choices about what they buy and produce.

We have fully committed ourselves to supporting and fostering a new vision about economic, environmental, and social change—by buying and promoting locally produced goods. 

This is why we decided to start Common Good Market. We hope you will join us in making a commitment to become more purposeful in the decisions we make about the products we buy for our homes and our families.’

Rick and Elizabeth Conrad, Co-Founders

Common Good Market

But here I am drifting from my theme.

I ponder how best the skills and competencies of these young people may truly be measured, if, as I have heard say, students may achieve a level of competency in some craft areas in six months, that is the equivalent of that achieved by apprentices, over a three-year placement? I would that there were so, and that there may be evidence that matches the claim, that holds tight to scrutiny, that has a value in the reality of the market place.

I must finally refer to a report that is remarkable in its claims, though unsurprising, and one that I am astounded has not attracted more media attention. I suspect the timing of its launch on 11th March 2011, shortly after the publication of the SEN Green Paper has not helped, and of course, I may be vastly underestimating its significant impact. It is the DEMOS report on The Forgotten Half – a Demos and private equity foundation report by Jonathan Birdwell, Matt Grist and Julia Margo. It is available to download for free from

The DEMOS report claims that whilst graduate unemployment has repeatedly hit the headlines since the start of the recession, it is the 50 per cent of young people who do not go to university that are the least protected in the labour market.

‘The Forgotten Half explores the school to work transitions of these young people. It finds the educational offer is severely lacking and makes recommendations for how to provide the employment premiums that will give this forgotten half of young people a fair shot at the labour market.’

Of this 50%, a significant further percentage will have special educational needs and/or disabilities.

I said at the start of this blog that I am pondering what part the specialist college may play in the mixed economy that is our provision for children and young people with special educational needs. I do not know that I have answered that at all in my meanderings. I am sure of the place and value of these colleges. Perhaps, I am not convinced, that those who fund, who deliberate provision and placements, and commission services, are as aware as they could be of the high value of these specialist colleges.

I am not certain, also, if the colleges themselves truly appreciate their value in an increasingly competitive market-place with a vision that is not clouded by a sentiment for the past.


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