A college based on a farm is teaching young adults with learning disabilities farming skills that can help them to move on to paid employment. Andrew Mourant reports.
When farmer Ken Hestor and his wife Ruth opened the doors of their farm to young people with learning disabilities to teach them how to look after animals 40 years ago, they would have little suspected it would grow into a fully-fledged college today.
The Hestors’ initial work at Fairfield Farm in Dilton Marsh, Wiltshire, gradually evolved into a charitable enterprise and then a college seeking to fill what the college’s current principal, Dr Tina Pagett, calls: “A big gap in the market.”
Now, Fairfield Farm College teaches 16-24 year-olds with learning disabilities basic skills in fields such as farming, horse care, horticulture and catering. While the farmhouse now stands empty, around it are the stables, greenhouses and airy new buildings that comprise a vibrant learning centre covering 26 acres.
In its 40 years, Fairfield has helped usher hundreds of people with learning disabilities toward independent living besides teaching them the nuts and bolts of trades that can help them get into paid employment at the end of their course.
There’s no questioning the need for a place like this: just 7% of people with a learning disability have paid jobs, despite most of them wanting to work and being able to do so with the right support, according to Mencap’s head of employment Mark Capper.
“A whole range of barriers exist – from the attitudes of employers to lack of training and in-work support,” Capper says.
Ciara Lawrence, who has a learning disability and works for Mencap, knows all about rejection. “Too many Jobcentre staff don’t understand about learning disability… and employers don’t realise what someone with a learning disability can do,” she says.
Access to appropriate education is key if the government is to meet its commitment of halving the numbers of people with disabilities who are out of work.
Fairfield’s students, who are referred by local authorities, come from a 40-mile radius. Some are residents, living in four houses just off site; while others attend daily. Fairfield has about 50 staff – “turnover is very low,” notes Pagett – for, on average, around 40 students.
Students arrive with various needs; many are on the autistic spectrum with “huge anxieties”. Fairfield’s intimate environment is far better for them than a large further education college, Pagett believes. “We can work much more closely to adapt the programme to meet their needs,” she says.
“Students will be largely classroom-based until they’re settled in… their anxiety level may not allow them to fully engage at first. But more and more students are moving through the programme to where they’re accessing work opportunities. Walking around, meeting those in the kitchen or the café, I can see there’s been a huge leap for them to make that progress.”
Literacy and numeracy are “embedded” in whichever programme is followed whether catering, equine, or motor mechanics, where for instance, opportunities arise not only for using tools but weighing and measuring as well: “Everyone learns differently,” says Pagett.
Until recently, the college had a ‘university’ ethos, offering three-year programmes. But times have changed: as usual, money – or the lack of it – was a contributory factor.
The financial squeeze on local authorities has meant that where once most students used to come for three-year courses, hours on some programmes have had to be trimmed.
“To run a college on a site like this and put 36 hours a week working experience in place is expensive,” Pagett says. “And what it costs for one young person to be placed here isn’t what it would cost for another. You may have a student who needs one-to-one support throughout the day, and additional support through the evening or night. That’s more costly than for a young person who could work comfortably in a group of four.”
But the college continues to offer a range of courses for students, and Pagett insists Fairfield remains: “In a really good place… we have our history and success rate and we want to keep young people coming through,” she says.
Not only that, but Dilton Marsh’s somewhat remote location has encouraged Fairfield to become a village hub. Its cafe provides food for people in the community – from mothers and toddlers to a local history group. It’s a business-like enterprise – the cafe now offers wifi to customers – and gives Fairfield students the chance to get genuine retail experience on site, which enhances their future employability.
As does working in the college shop. “When we first opened there was also one in the village and we had an agreement only to sell our organic produce,” says Pagett. “But now that shop’s closed. So we’re hoping to get the Post Office here and villagers are saying they’d like us to sell the basics.”
Fairfield also has relationships with several local employers, including a long-standing one with Palmer Gardens, a garden centre in nearby Trowbridge run by charity Shaw Trust. It has long offered career openings to people with learning disabilities, and a Fairfield student recently started an internship there.
The college also has links to large employers. “One of our boys who enjoys working with bikes had a placement at Halfords that started as a day a week and then became a couple of days,” Pagett says. “He’s a residential student, and we now have links with a Halfords more local to him, so we can make sure he potentially has job opportunities.
“Another student is now on a full apprenticeship at an equestrian centre – taken on after competing against other applicants.”
But Pagett stresses that Fairfield’s equestrian course has a value far beyond being a conduit to paid work.
“We may never get a student who’ll learn to ride, but they do learn to care for horses and their needs. Those needs are similar to our own... students see that an animal is safe, well cared-for and fed and that’s transported to making sure they do it for themselves. Living independently and having social links with groups that keep them occupied is as important for our students as having paid employment.”
Making a difference
Fairfield continues to invest in new buildings and an indoor arena for the equestrian centre is in the pipeline. “At the moment we’re weather-limited and we could develop that as a business opportunity,” says Pagett. The college is attuned to the employment potential of sport and leisure, and currently raising funds – £70,000 is needed – for a multi-use weather-proof court suitable for football, basketball, tennis and such like.
While that may benefit future students, Fairfield also likes to keep in touch with former students – the end of each academic year is marked by a reunion barbecue. “It’s an opportunity for young people to come back; for us to see where they’re living and what they’re doing,” says Pagett.
Some have achieved their goal of finding a job; while others do voluntary work. But Pagett remains realistic about expectations: “There are students here who will never have paid employment,” she admits.
But for those that do go on to paid employment, Pagett believes Fairfield will have made a crucial difference, opening doors that otherwise may have remained closed “An employer will take someone and pay them based on the contribution they’re making. Our students want to contribute to the adult community.”
About the author
Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist