Skip to content

50 years of Inclusive Learning at our college - Part 1

28th February 2024 – Tags: Inclusive Learning

This year we are celebrating 50 years of specialist provision for students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, which collectively goes under the umbrella of ‘Inclusive Learning’. 

From small beginnings in 1974, when a handful of adult learners started on the very first course, Inclusive Learning has grown to become a major part of City College Norwich’s offer - and is an area for which we have built up a reputation for innovation and excellence. 

Origins of our Inclusive Learning provision 

A key figure in the story of Inclusive Learning at the college is Miss Olive Browning. As Head of Community Studies, Miss Browning was instrumental in the development of the curriculum in the 1970s, introducing both A Levels and health and social care programmes to the college. 

Miss Browning was credited with having brought about ‘major changes in education attitudes’ at the college. She described her ethos as follows: 

I don’t see further education being in any way ‘apart’ from the community as a whole. I have always felt that education is not to be found in a building, but in a broad contact with the reality of life.” (quoted by the EDP in an article on her retirement, 17th July 1978) 

This spirit can be seen in Miss Browning’s decision to initiate the college’s first learning opportunities for adults with learning difficulties. She asked her teaching staff whether anyone would be interested in helping with this, and Dr Rick Brannen (who would later go on to become Head of Foundation Studies) volunteered to take on the project. 

In early 1974, a group of seven adult learners with learning difficulties started attending the college for one day a week. Dr Brannen recalls that this was a big step not only for the learners, but also for Social Services who rightly wanted assurances that these vulnerable adults would be provided with the appropriate level of learning and support. 

This first course was focused on developing the learners’ life skills, giving them experiences of different parts of the college and creating opportunities to interact with the wider college community.           

This was the start of ‘OPEX’, short for Opportunities and Experience. The course was tailored to each student’s starting point, providing a curriculum and setting learning goals that were designed to be realistic and relevant to each individual’s needs and abilities. 

Linking with special schools 

The success of OPEX led to discussions with the Careers Service about whether the college might be able to offer full-time courses to 16-year-old school leavers from local special schools, as there were no opportunities for them to remain in education beyond the age of 16.       

A proposal for a new course for school leavers was developed by Dr Brannen and put to the college’s Academic Board. This represented a big change for the college and there was some debate internally as to whether the college would be able to meet the needs of this new group of learners. 

The decision was made to go ahead with the proposal and so the college’s first full-time courses for school leavers with learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LDD) was established in 1977. 

An OPEX student with Dr Rick Brannen (1981)

An OPEX student with Dr Rick Brannen (1981)

As well as persuading his college colleagues that this was the right thing to do, Dr Brannen also needed to convince the special schools, and parents/carers, that the college could provide suitable opportunities for these young people.      

In setting up post-16 provision for LDD learners, colleges like City College Norwich and North Nottinghamshire College were ahead of the curve. 

In 1978, the Warnock Committee provided the first comprehensive review of special educational needs (SEN) in England. The Committee affirmed that ‘special educational provision’ should be regarded as integral to general education and not as separate from it – so endorsing the principle of integration for young people with LDD. 

Bridging the gap between college and the world of work 

It was recognised from the outset that integrating young people with LDD into Further Education was about more than simply being a part of the college community – it was crucially also about offering these young people the same opportunities for vocational learning, work experience, and progression into employment. 

By 1979, the college was developing its own policy for preparing young people with LDD for the world of work, but funding was an issue. The new Youth Opportunities Programmes, introduced by the Manpower Services Commission in the early 1980s, provided the funding that was needed to set up a new work introduction course. 

Another aspect of the expanding opportunities for students with LDD was the introduction of residential trips – initially within Norfolk, but quickly becoming more ambitious with trips as far afield as Wales. Some of these young people had never been outside Norfolk before, so these new opportunities helped to broaden their horizons in every sense.  

An OPEX student scaling the YMCAs climbing wall (1992)

An OPEX student scaling the YMCAs climbing wall (1992)

The college introduced its suite of ‘Phoenix’ courses at about this time, which provided vocational learning and work experience opportunities to young people with a wide spectrum of needs. Whilst young people with higher needs continued to join the college from special schools, the Phoenix courses offered an important new progression option for young people with mild or moderate LDD who had been in ‘mainstream’ education in comprehensive schools.     

Courses bearing the name of Phoenix continue to be offered at the college to this day, providing flexible pathways for young people that are tailored to their individual starting points and goals – be that greater independence, further study, or progression into employment. 

Employers’ support for pioneering courses  

Supporting young people to prepare for and make a successful transition into employment has remained a major focus of our Inclusive Learning provision, with the college and its employer partners working together on successful and highly innovative programmes.  

A group of young people from MINT's hospitality pre-employment course (2018).

A group of young people from MINT's hospitality pre-employment course (2018).

Among these was Project SEARCH, an initiative from Cincinatti, Ohio, which college staff helped to introduce to the UK in the late 2000s. Project SEARCH used a method known as Training in Systematic Instruction, which was developed for young people with autism and Asperger’s who can thrive in roles that require a systematic approach, with lots of repetition, and clear, precise instructions. 

Rotating work placements were offered to young people by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Norfolk County Council, and Serco, and the programme proved highly successful at supporting young people to make the transition into employment. Fifteen years later, our supported internships with local employers are still going strong and this continues to be an area of growth for the department, with a new Agri-land supported internship added to the curriculum offer in 23/24, and a recent award of funding from the DfE to pilot a MINT based supported internship in conjunction with the Local Authority. 

MINT is another innovative programme that has successfully brought together young people with different barriers to employment, and local employers, to create new opportunities. Since 2008, MINT has supported 900 young people through its pre-employment programmes and supported internships. MINT Job Coaches help young people during work placements, and remain involved to help a smooth transition when a young person secures a job. 

50 Years of Inclusive Learning - Part 2