Whether it’s providing farm placements or much-needed structure through digital platforms, putting SEND learners front and centre always makes sense, writes Paul Phillips

Since 2001, my mission has been to place inclusive practice at the centre of Weston College. When offered the chance to run a college “my way’” it was daunting – miles from home, failing and in poor financial health.

But these circumstances allowed me to fulfil my vision of placing SEND learners at the heart of my strategic plan. The reason?

I believe that if you get teaching right for these learners, then you get it right for everyone. Outstanding teaching and learning is about a “personal individualised” approach, and the best practice we have developed for SEND learners here has gone on to benefit everyone.

I had some inspirational staff. ahead of their time regarding SEND strategies. However, it was not easy to convince governors and wider staff of the direction of travel. Back in 2001 the college had eight SEND learners, taught in dilapidated facilities at the back of the site.

I placed these learners in the most visible location to set the scene for the new college mission, “creating brighter futures”. To their credit, staff quickly got on board. Since then we’ve transformed ourselves from an FE provider offering pockets of inclusion to a fully inclusive organisation delivering FE.

This has been achieved through investing in continuous professional development to degree level, a motivational career structure, SEND support hubs at every campus and about £2.5 million invested in specialist facilities, such as an autism residential training facility and sensory learning base.

Today we have more than 1,300 SEND learners (511 with high needs) on employability, apprenticeship and degree programmes. Progression rates are exceptional (97 per cent) with 33 per cent into employment (compared with six per cent nationally). We’ve won the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Inclusive Practice and became one of only three National SEND Centres of Excellence in the country (the others are Derby College and City College Norwich).

The aspirational place that SEND holds within the college’s strategic plan has been even more evident during Covid. The senior leadership team designed our lockdown EdTech strategy to focus on “digital inclusion”; the impact of this meant over 90 per cent virtual attendance from SEND learners throughout the pandemic.

We launched a #MyVirtualCollege concept, which meant all learners and especially SEND learners still felt part of the college through digitally accessible courses, timetables, support sessions, tutors and the wider college community.

Even the most anxious learners have finally returned because of our latest innovation

Innovative virtual teaching operated through Microsoft Teams, involving fun team challenges and activities including mindfulness to reduce isolation. This provided learners with a much-needed structure to establish new routines.

In using these real-world technologies, learners maintained friendship groups and developed wider skills and behaviours that will be transferable to the workplaces of the future. For some, removing the distractions and anxiety of a classroom setting has had an extremely positive impact on achievement and is a lesson learnt for our future curriculum design.

However, coming back to college presented its own challenges. Anxiety has been high – many have not left their home for six months. To help, we ran transitional programmes throughout the summer. We quickly realised that a “recovery curriculum” focused on mental health and reducing anxiety was needed. In the main, learners have settled into the new environment and are excited to be back.

We have been taken aback by their resilience and adaptability. Even the most anxious learners have finally returned because of our latest innovation.

We’ve invested in Butcombe Farm, a nearby chilli farm, as an alternative classroom to provide a pathway to the “new normal”. Here, working with specialist practitioners, we use the concept of “Engagement to Employment” to nurture the talents of SEND learners as employees for the future.

It’s crucial that SEND learners are not lost at this critical moment in their education. If colleges prioritise them, these learners have brilliant opportunities ahead of them.