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Christina And Foxes Academy

The following article is about Christina Gates and Foxes Academy, a residential college offering a variety of courses with a focus on developing work-related, and independent skills which can lead to a career in the catering and hospitality industry.

There had never been any plan, or even thoughts, about Christina going to a residential college but, when we realised that our intended retirement move (my retirement, not Sonya’s!) to the West Country was going to create a difficulty with Christina’s ongoing education I brought this subject up at her annual educational/social review in March last year.  My retirement is now imminent and the plan is (house sale permitting!) for us to move this autumn or early winter.  However, Christina would still have a year left of her transition period at the Edith Borthwick School.

I feel that this is a very crucial period in her education and development and it was important that the move (and, very significantly, all the uncertainties around timing, etc) should not prevent her getting the best opportunities to retain that possible.  At the review someone mentioned the possibility of residential education and, luckily, just that morning the transitions officer at the school had something land on her desk about a Foxes Academy in Minehead, Somerset, which offered a residential course in catering and hospitality – the work that Christina had most expressed an interest in.

When I got home I looked up Foxes on the web and then rang the college.  Fortuitously, they had a presentation day for intake for the year ahead (ie this year) due within a couple of weeks of my call and so we booked to attend.  Their initial assessment was that Christina fitted the overall profile of students acceptable to the college (seemingly not too capable but sufficiently capable of developing towards independent living and working) and Christina was invited back to an assessment day in early July.

Foxes is an amazing establishment, one that many people have seen featured on a TV programme several years ago.  It is situated in a beautiful Victorian building on the seafront and is run as a working hotel to enable young people with significant learning difficulties to train in the hotel industry (cooking, waiting on tables, cleaning, laundry etc).  It has a three year programme of learning, with around 75 students supported by around 100 staff.  The students live in 8 residential houses close to the college and are taught to look after their own accommodation, in a social environment, and themselves as well as training at the college.

Indeed, Foxes state that ‘every experience is seen as a learning opportunity from the moment you wake up in the morning until the moment that you go to bed’.  Christina’s education in the basic subjects would continue alongside the work related training and she would have a personalised and negotiated educational programme that will fit with her needs in all respects, including social and personal development.  The amazing thing is that transition from the college starts, as a subject from the day that they commence there and everything is geared to providing the best future possible.

However, back to Christina’s application.  We attended the assessment day with some trepidation.  Would Christina let go and take part in the assessment (she had been very withdrawn when we attended the presentation day)?  Would they find her too capable – or insufficiently responsive?  Our first relief was when, on being asked with the other three young participants, to go with one of the staff to take part in the assessment, she removed herself from my armpit and readily went off with the others.  We were provided ourselves with ‘homework’ – forms to fill in on our own assessments of our offspring, and had accepted an invitation to a barbeque that the young people were going to have on the front lawn at lunch time.  It was exhilarating to see that, on her table, Christina had become the life and sole of her group, participating with totally open arms the opportunity presenting itself to her.

At the end of the day the immediate feedback that we got seemed to strongly indicate that Christina would be offered a place (although Sonya was a little less sure of this than I) and we then had the terrible wait for final confirmation that it would happen.  When this confirmation did come through we still, though, had the hurdle of funding for the very significant cost of her attendance to achieve.

We were very fortunate to have a very positive and committed Connexions officer behind Christina and, as things developed and Social Workers were appointed  (we had the added problem of Christina moving from the children’s team to adult team before conclusion of the affair) they also very strongly supported her case.  However, it took around twelve months for this process to be completed and during that time we couldn’t at any stage say ‘Yes, this is going to happen’.  That made it particularly difficult to prepare Christina for going and yet not leave her too open to huge disappointment if it did not work out.

Thankfully, Christina has now secured her place, funding included, and will be starting there on 10th September.  We recognise that we have been incredibly fortunate in finding and securing this opportunity for her and it has opened possibilities for her future that we had hoped for but, until now, had never seen a pathway to.  It is obvious that this course would not suit everyone, but if it could I would highly recommend it.  The contact there is the vice principal, Larraine Atkins, telephone number 01643 708529 or e-mail lorraineatkins@foxesacademy.ac.uk.  Their website is www.foxesacademy.ac.uk

On a more personal note, with Christina’s departure to Foxes and our impending departure to live in the West Country, we are going to have to say a sad goodbye to Down Syndrome Extra 21.  This has been a part of our life for the last 15 or more years and the support and social connection has been an important part of our lives.  Christina has particularly benefited from being part of Dance 21 and the only shame was that she was too shy to take part from its start.  It has been an amazing journey and we thank everyone and wish you all well for the future.  And, if you are down in the West Country at any time you will know where to find us (well, that is when we find out for ourselves!).

Michael Gates

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