Learners with SEND take centre stage in our jobs marketplace

Real-life learning in our unique college marketplace is vital training for students’ future employment prospects, says Jennifer Fawcett-Jones

Real-life learning in our unique college marketplace is vital training for students’ future employment prospects, says Jennifer Fawcett-Jones

13 Nov 2023, 5:00

Derwen College is a further education college with a difference. We’re not just a leading specialist college with big ambitions for our students; we’re also somewhere where the local community visits to shop, eat and even enjoy an overnight stay.

This forward-thinking college for students with a wide variety of special educational needs and disabilities has very few traditional classrooms. Instead, skills are learned and honed in an industry-standard environment, our Marketplace – a complex of shops and eateries which are open to the public seven days a week.

The Marketplace offers learners internal work experience in meaningful, real-life, customer-facing environments. This includes our on-site Orangery Restaurant, Walled Garden Café, garden centre and gift shop, a mini hotel, and a shop, The Vintage Advantage.

This unique setting encapsulates our core ethos of raising learner aspirations. We support students to develop their independence and work-ready skills to progress and contribute to their local community.

For those on study programmes, we offer four different pathways: horticulture, hospitality and food, retail and enterprise, and performing arts. Our students begin their journey learning core skills within their vocational area before progressing to the Marketplace provision to consolidate and further develop their vocational skills.

Our garden centre shop provides work experience for our retail and enterprise students. We sell a range of produce made by our students in hospitality and food such as jams, chutneys, sandwiches, cakes and breads. Outside, we sell an array of plants and flowers at very reasonable prices that our horticulture students have grown, maintained and cared for.

Our Orangery Restaurant and Walled Garden Café are very busy establishments within the week and at weekends. They offer our learners experience of serving customers, working in the kitchen area and back of house. You will also find an abundance of hand-made cakes in the Walled Garden Café, again made by our students.

Our complex of shops and eateries is open to the public seven days a week

Our newest Marketplace venture is our first ever charity shop, The Vintage Advantage. It was opened in 2020 and is a big draw to local shoppers seeking a pre-loved bargain. The Vintage Advantage supports retail and enterprise students to develop their shop skills, including pricing items, stock rotation, visual merchandising and sorting donations.

All of our facilities enable learners to provide a meaningful service to the local community and gain work-based learning opportunities in a real-life setting. We have fantastic support locally and it’s great for our learners to feel part of that community while at college. Customers experience service that is beyond industry standard norms.

Once our learners have gained skills and confidence within our internal work experience placements, they progress into external work experience at the point that is right for them. We have great support for this model from national and local businesses, including Premier Inn, Spar, Co-op, and a range of local shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants.

Earlier this month I was proud to host our graduation ceremony for 2023 leavers. Seeing each student’s journey from when they started at college through to graduating with qualifications, experience and skills in the sector they wish to work in is the best part of my job. We are helping to break down barriers to employment that young people with SEND so often face.

Derwen College is special because where others see a barrier, we see an opportunity. We were recognised at the 2023 nasen Awards, scooping FE Provision of the Year. An amazing achievement for our dedicated team. We strive to support each young person to contribute to society in a positive and purposeful way. We believe that our ethos and popular Marketplace make us unique.

Every college is different and not everyone is necessarily able to host a dedicated Marketplace like ours. However, real-world learning in a customer-facing environment – through college-led enterprises or partnerships with businesses – are possible anywhere. They not only offer vital employment preparation for learners but also a very effective tool to challenge the perceptions that so often hold them back.

Pop in for lunch or a shopping spree. Come stay a night at Hotel 751. I promise it’ll challenge your perceptions of what is possible at your college too.

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