Learner voices at heart of 157 Group publication

The 157 Group has published ‘a collection of ten learner voices’, compiled in collaboration with the National Association of Specialist Colleges (Natspec), on the experiences of students with learning difficulties and disabilities in further education. Click here to download.

Chief executive of Natspec, Alison Boulton, and executive director of 157 Group, Lynne Sedgmore, write in the forward that the voices of learners are key to understanding how colleges can offer the best support.

“The traditional wisdom says that policymakers make policy and practitioners implement it. We believe that it does not have to be that way, and seek, through publications like this, to allow the real experiences of learners to influence those who make policy decisions,” they said.

One of the students featured in the report was former Ruskin Mill College student Charlie Avent, 24, who’s autistic.

Mr Avent is pictured above launching the publication at the 157 Group annual reception this evening, with Lynne Sedgmore, where he said in a speech about his experience being a learner:

I don’t have learning difficulties, I had teaching difficulties”.

With permission from the 157 Group we have included Charlie’s story below, as written by Jan Murray in the publication.

Charlie: Harmony through horsemanship

I didn’t get on well in mainstream education. Reading and writing was a struggle for me, but my teachers didn’t seem to understand my difficulties. Their constant criticism made me angry and confrontational, so it was difficult to make friends.

The kids at school didn’t seem to like me: they’d just beat me up and call me names. I felt completely isolated, as if I were in a foreign country where no one understood my language. By the age of 15, I was losing the will to live.

I did try riding as a child, but autism makes you very sensitive to the world around you and I was often panicky around the horses. Looking back, I realise I was freaked out by the violence of it all, particularly seeing horses being whipped, but I just wasn’t able to articulate those feelings at the time. I’d just freak out or have panic attacks.

I was moved to a special school at 15, and then on to Ruskin Mill College at 19. But despite having greater freedom, I still struggled to fit in at college. Then my art teacher Patricia introduced me to her horse, Oscar, and everything changed.

When I first saw Oscar, it was like meeting a long‑lost member of the family. I knew instinctively that I wanted to understand more about how horses communicate. Having noticed my enthusiasm, staff at Ruskin Mill College arranged for me to do work experience at Heartshore Horses, a centre for natural horsemanship near Minchinhampton in the Cotswolds.

Dawn, who owns the stables, introduced me to the concept of natural horsemanship, explaining how horses communicate through their movement and gestures. If you know what you’re looking for, you can tell if a horse is happy, sad, in love – or even if they like you.

In all, I had 18 months of weekly work experience and learning natural horsemanship at Heartshore. When I left Ruskin Mill College, I asked Dawn if I could stay on doing regular volunteer work at the stables, which I have been doing ever since.

I knew early on that I wanted my own horse, but had no idea how I would afford the livery. After talking it through with Dawn, she said I could keep a horse at Heartshore in exchange for helping out at the stables a few days a week.

Thanks to the help of staff at Ruskin Mill College and Dawn and my colleagues at Heartshore, I now have a much better understanding of myself.”

In natural horsemanship, your horse chooses you, not the other way round. As soon as I saw Spirit, she lowered her head and pawed the ground, which was a very clear sign that she was the horse for me. When your horses chooses you, it is a very powerful moment and I decided then that I wanted to use my interest to help raise awareness of autism.

Since then, I’ve continued to work part time at Heartshore and have started giving demonstrations in natural horsemanship to children and young people with autism. Last year, I gave a talk at the Natspec conference about autism – something I’d never have done before I started working with horses.

When you’re on the autistic spectrum, it’s like your brain is on a different operating system from other people’s; if you compare the brain to a computer, it’s like the difference between Apple and Windows 7.

Thanks to the help of staff at Ruskin Mill College and Dawn and my colleagues at Heartshore, I now have a much better understanding of myself, which means I am far more able to control my behaviour. I’ve learned that no one listens when you’re ranting and raving, which means I am far less likely to flare up like I used to.

I’m 24 now, and when I look back on my teenage years, I can see why I was angry. I felt I had no voice and no choice. I’m sure a lot of young people – and not just those on the autistic spectrum – feel like that.

Young people’s interests are their strength, and if we could develop a system that helped young people pursue their passions, instead of trying to educate everyone in the same way, I’m sure we could reduce anti‑social behaviour and underachievement.

I used to think of autism as a disorder, but my experiences have taught me that being on the autism spectrum is a disability only if you perceive it that way. Imagine an axe: in the wrong hands it can be destructive, but if used in the right way, it can create beautiful things. That’s how I see autism now. And for the first time in my life, I feel I can have my say.

Charlie with his horse Spirit


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