BBC Radio 4 In Touch
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ROYAL NATIONAL COLLEGE FOR THE BLIND
The Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford has for many years provided a wide range of academic and vocational training to blind and partially sighted people over the age of sixteen, usually in a residential setting.
Three years ago it received a glowing Ofsted report, and was subsequently given prestigious Learning and Skills Beacon status.
The College is now planning a twenty million pound expansion scheme as a centre for excellence in sport and complementary therapies.
In Touch investigated where this leaves its traditional role in education for blind people.
Peter discussed the changes with College Principal Christine Steadman, who took over in the summer of 2007 and the Chair of the Governors, David Adams.
ROYAL NATIONAL COLLEGE FOR THE BLIND
Tel. 01432 265725
Fax 01432 376628
For more information on the College.
105 Judd Street
Helpline: 0845 766 9999 (UK callers only - Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm)
Tel: 0207 388 1266 (switchboard/overseas callers)
The RNIB provides information, support and advice for anyone with a serious sight problem. They not only provide Braille, Talking Books and computer training, but imaginative and practical solutions to everyday challenges. The RNIB campaigns to change society's attitudes, actions and assumptions, so that people with sight problems can enjoy the same rights, freedoms and responsibilities as fully sighted people. They also fund pioneering research into preventing and treating eye disease and promote eye health by running public health awareness campaigns.
HENSHAWS SOCIETY FOR BLIND PEOPLE (HSBP)
John Derby House
88-92 Talbot Road
Tel: 0161 872 1234
Henshaws provides a wide range of services for people who have sight difficulties. They aim to enable visually impaired people of all ages to maximise their independence and enjoy a high quality of life. They have centres in: Harrogate, Knaresborough, Liverpool, Llandudno, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Salford, Southport and Trafford.
THE GUIDE DOGS FOR THE BLIND ASSOCIATION (GDBA)
Tel: 0118 983 5555
The GDBA’s mission is to provide guide dogs, mobility and other rehabilitation services that meet the needs of blind and partially sighted people.
ACTION FOR BLIND PEOPLE
14-16 Verney Road
Tel: 0800 915 4666 (info & advice)
Tel: 020 7635 4800 (central office)
Registered charity with national cover that provides practical support in the areas of housing, holidays, information, employment and training, cash grants and welfare rights for blind and partially-sighted people. Leaflets and booklets are available.
NATIONAL LEAGUE OF THE BLIND AND DISABLED
324 Grays Inn Road
Tel: 020 7837 6103
Textphone: 020 7837 6103
National League of the Blind and Disabled is a registered trade union and is involved in all issues regarding the employment of blind and disabled people in the UK.
NATIONAL LIBRARY FOR THE BLIND (NLB)
Far Cromwell Road
Tel: 0161 406 2525
Textphone: 0161 355 2043
The NLB is a registered charity which helps visually impaired people throughout the country continue to enjoy the same access to the world of reading as people who are fully sighted.
DISABILITY RIGHTS COMMISSION (DRC)
Freepost MID 02164
Tel: 08457 622 633
Textphone: 08457 622 644
The DRC aims to act as a central source of advice on the rights of disabled people, while helping disabled people secure their rights and eliminate discrimination. It can advise on the operation of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
DISABLED LIVING FOUNDATION
380-384 Harrow Road
Tel: 0845 130 9177
The Disabled Living Foundation provide information and advice on disability equipment.
The BBC is not responsible for external websites
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TX: 08.07.08 2040-2100
PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
PRODUCER: KATHLEEN GRIFFIN
Good evening. What's happening at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford? For many years now it's provided a wide range of academic and vocational training to blind and partially-sighted people over the age of 16, usually in a residential setting. Three years ago it received a glowing Ofsted report and was subsequently given prestigious learning and skills beacon status. Now it's planning a £25 million expansion scheme, as a centre for excellence in sport and complementary therapies. But after 130 years where does this leave its traditional role in the education for blind and partially-sighted people? We've been hearing about department closures, hurt and baffled staff and students and a sense of fundamental change in its ethos. Such has been the level of concern that we're devoting the whole of today's In Touch to it. In a few moments we'll be talking both to the principal of the college and the chair of the governors.
But first, much of the concern that we've been hearing surrounds the apparent closure of the piano tuning department, which has, for many years, offered training in a long established profession in which blind and partially-sighted people have been highly successful. Phil Kennedy has taught piano technology at the college for many years and until recently he was head of department. First though, we hear from mature student Arthur Turner, who recalled for us his first impressions of the college when he went for an interview.
I thought that the place was absolutely brilliant. I spoke to some tutors and students. The piano tuning environment looked to be very good - they had compartmentalised tuning rooms which appeared to be sound proofed. They had an extensive and quite well resourced repairs workshop which seemed to have every single thing in there. And two days later I got an offer to do the piano tuning and repairs course and I was delighted to go ahead with it.
In summer 2007 when the day before I was due to go on leave I was told by one of the senior managers that all the pianos from the piano workshop and the piano tuning practice rooms - everything would be moving into another building. There was absolutely no consultation about these issues whatsoever and it really was a fait accompli. We've always been used to working as an efficient department and we've prided ourselves on managing the department well and giving the students good service. The new rooms that we went in - then in September - this was September 2007 - really were completely inadequate. There weren't enough tuning practice rooms when in fact that term started with nine very enthusiastic students.
I found that the piano technology environment had been shifted from this lavish place to a hall of residence and I was amazed. There were pianos themselves in corridors so that when you were trying to tune there were people who - you know no fault of their own - couldn't see very well and they were banging into you.
So it bore no real relationship to what you thought you'd signed up for?
Well no it didn't.
So what did you do, did you complain?
Yes, we could never ever get any answers and they've got these posters round says that communication is everything but when you try and ask through the natural channels you get no reply from above and the tutors say well I've passed it up the line and that's all I can do. And over the October half term they'd put curtains in certain rooms and converted toilets and kitchens on the lower part of this hall of residence into tuning rooms. So I did get some sort of recompense.
It was a bit of a shambles to be honest Peter.
So clearly unhappy about the department but when did you begin to fear for your job?
The first time I think that I was informed was probably about a month ago when we were told that certain members of staff would be losing their jobs and in fact I got a letter on Friday 13th June telling me that I would be made redundant from then. So in fact it was a fortnight from getting the letter to say I was going to be made redundant to the day in which my employment was going to cease at college, which was the 27th June. To me that - after 25 years service - is completely outrageous, I can't describe it anymore strongly than that really. I'm very uneasy in the way I've been treated.
What about how you actually physically left the premises?
On the Friday I'd made a request to see the chairman of the governors and speak to all the governors and within a short while of making that request I'd had a phone call. On the Monday morning I met two of the managers at quarter to nine in the morning and they told me that I was going to be suspended and walked off the premises. I feel it was just to get me out of the way so I was not able to speak to the governors who were meeting the following week.
And were you walked off the premises?
I was physically walked down towards the gate. They did offer me a lift but I declined.
I saw him being led away and indeed we've not had any teachers since that date.
So has the course ended?
The only tangible proof that I have that it has ended is I saw a governor in a maths lesson, because I decided I'd like to take A Level maths, and she came in visiting - a staff governor I think - and I said: "Is it true you have voted piano tuning off the agenda for the college in the forthcoming academic year?"
And she said: "Yes we have, haven't you been told?"
And I said: "No".
So what happens to you now Arthur, because you must feel that you've rather wasted this year?
Well there's part of me that does feel that. I have decided to put a number of proposals to the college as to what I could actually do. I'd like really to go ahead with the tuning but unfortunately I don't really trust the college to deliver any coherent format. I just think it's a shame really because I really was investing a lot of my time, a lot of my cranial energy if you like, into sort of achieving lots of things. Some of the teaching there is sort of second to none and I just feel as though I've been batted into a corner with a hefty baseball bat or something like that you know.
Well listening to those comments in Hereford are college principal Christine Steadman, who took over in the summer of 2006 and the chair of the governors David Adams.
First of all, can we get this straight? Well the college still be running a piano tuning department when you start back in the autumn?
No, we won't be running a piano tuning course this autumn because we don't have the number of learners coming through who are wanting to do the course.
But it was quite a sudden decision wasn't it, and you had learners on the course to start with, it seems to have been a rather abrupt decision with apparently the pianos being moved in the summer. So what was the basis of all that?
Well the original move for the pianos was about our new development. We had to have some buildings knocked down ready for the development of the new sports centre and the new residential accommodation and in order to ensure that everybody had a room to work in we had to do quite a bit of relocation.
But piano tuning is a very well established career for blind people, the Association of Blind Piano Tuners tell us that there's a shortage of piano tuners throughout the country, that you can earn between £25,000 and £30,000, sometimes more. This seems an odd thing to wrap up so suddenly for obviously you're going to talk later on about the development plan but this is an established career which many people want to follow.
Historically Peter it has been an established career but we are finding the number of students dwindling year by year and as we sit here we have no applicants for next year's courses.
Well that's interesting because I was at New College the other day they said they wanted to send you two students for next year's course. So does this mean that piano tuning is going then?
On the face of it yes but if we did have a sufficient number of students to make a viable course we will revisit the decision. What we're seeing is as life changes and progresses demand for jobs is in different places.
So you're saying that you're looking at the jobs of the future. We will come on to that, I promise you. I just want to establish about the actual redundancy of Mr Kennedy. Its manner more than anything else. This is, you know, a man who has been there for 25 years, got a fortnight's notice of his redundancy and was then walked off the college premises. I mean why?
Well I don't want to get into the detail about individuals and what happened with them but I can assure you that we followed all appropriate guidelines, there was full consultation with individuals involved and as usual we ensured that everybody was consulted, things were talked through and we did everything we could to ease the pain of the individuals who were receiving the news and to support the people who were giving the news....
Although it does seem a very abrupt way to treat someone who spent 25 years dedicated service at the college.
What we did with Phil and with everybody who was involved was have an extended consultation period and that procedure is the guidelines which we follow which are the legal guidelines.
Now as you've indicated there are big changes and the changes are taking place in far more areas than simply piano tuning. Francine Burns had worked at the college for almost nine years, she was head of the employment team but that team was then disbanded with obvious implications for jobs.
It meant that in common with every other member of staff I had to apply for a post if I wished to remain in employment at the college. In the end I didn't actually get one of the two posts that I applied for but was offered another post managing the access centre. I did take up my post as manager of the access centre but it wasn't - it wasn't for me at all and I had been putting out a few applications. It really wasn't discussed with me as to whether it was a suitable job, it was a take or leave it thing and of course one takes it. So I was successful in being offered a post outside the college and I put in my notice in November with the intention of leaving at the end of December - I gave a month's notice. I heard nothing for about seven or eight days and then I sought advice from the human resource team as to what I should do next. The following week - on the Monday afternoon - I was summoned to an interview at short notice with my line manager and the senior HR advisor and asked if I could leave there and then. I said no because I hadn't cleared my desk and I had nine years worth of stuff to deal with. So I said would undertake to leave the following day. I went in in the morning and was packing up but at 12 o'clock - well half past 12 - I was informed that I had to be off the premises by half past one. And eventually I was escorted off the premises and told to go. Other members of staff, friends and colleagues were physically kept away from me and I was very - actually distressed and confused. I did write a serious letter of complaint to the chair of the governors. I eventually did receive my leaving present through the post, although that took a bit of getting. It was normal custom at RNC, until my departure, to have a coffee in the staff room about half past 10, present you with your card and your leaving gift and thank you for your duties but the way it was done, it was very distressing actually.
But running behind these individual cases and through many of the conversations that we've had with over 20 staff, former staff, students and former students is what is happening to the college and whether there is a wider agenda. What part, for example, does the new sports centre play in all of this. Well this is Francine Burn's view.
The future of residential education is changing and I think I understood that the college would have to reorganise and have to look at other ways of generating revenue. But I get the feeling now that the actual education side, the collegiate side, is being wound down in favour of a sports, holistic therapy complex linked presumably to the Paralympics bid.
Why would that matter if people were getting their courses elsewhere?
Let's be realistic, they're probably going to have to get their courses elsewhere and in my role now, in a totally different role, for a different county I can well see why local authorities may well feel that they want to improve facilities in county and save money that way. But some of the work that RNC did was indescribably marvellous and there are always going to be people who need much more additional support, need rehabilitation, need the ability to get independence skills and go into somewhere like RNC, they can't get that anywhere else.
That's really the nub of this isn't it, I mean what is the aim of all this change? David Adams, perhaps if I can come to you first.
Well we have to move with the times, I have some dear friends who are blind they were taught typing and answering telephones, they were given a basic skills education. We're trying to broaden that and face the future, as you said a little earlier, we're looking at the way the world is going and we're going to make sure our students come out of there fit for purpose.
How much is this about the difference between specialism and integration, because that is one of the worries, and is Francine Burns right when she says that maybe the problem here is the difficulty of getting local authorities to actually pay for people to come to colleges like Hereford which have expensive residential facilities?
Well you know that the government has an agenda to incorporate blind people into mainstream education.
So is that what is driving this - the government's agenda to get people into mainstream?
It's partly that but partly our learners still come to us, they're still blind and visually-impaired and they usually now have additional difficulties which I think Francine described the college as indescribably brilliant and she's right and we're good at what we do and we're improving what we offer all the time.
Can I ...
But we have to move with the times I'm afraid.
So Christine what are you going to be offering?
Well first of all I'd like to just put the story straight. We've got more learners than ever coming through this year. The local education authorities, the learning and skills councils are buying our provision because of its quality and they will continue to do so because we live in a demand led world and we are going to be providing the appropriate courses for our learners.
So does that mean that the residential part of it - it will stay, is that the intention?
Absolutely, there is no question to diminish it, in fact part of our build is a brand new residential centre that will open later in September, it's state of the art to enable learners to develop their independence and their living skills.
But it's not just the courses that we've mentioned, I mean some of your A Level courses have gone this time, so why is that and how does that fit in with the plan?
Well it's the same message, it's about what the local authorities, what the learning and skills council, what the Welsh Assembly for government will purchase from us. And at the moment we are reducing a small number of A Level courses but at the same time we're extending other courses, for example we've got level 3 Braille being taught for the first time at the college, we're not cutting A Levels, we're just responding to the needs of the learners that are coming through our doors.
And what about the sports centre, is that creating jobs or is that just a facility which is going to be - obviously be exciting for the 2012 Paralympics but what's it providing in employment terms?
Well first of all, it wasn't built and the decision wasn't made in terms of the Paralympics. The Paralympics is a bonus. This sports centre was designed at the instigation of the governors because they wanted world class facilities for our learners with a visual impairment. And it is going to be a phenomenal experience for learners working in there because it's going to enable them to be receptionists, to work in customer service, to work in administration, customer relations, working in the fitness centre, complementary therapy and we're going to set up incubation units so that our learners can actually experience employment and then we'll transition them into employment.
So you have great plans but isn't the very least that can be said that with all your signs up and posters about communications that this has been a massive communications failure because a lot of the people who've talked to us, and we have talked to a lot of people, just don't know about any of this or don't understand how this is going to work, including people who worked for you?
Well communication's a two-way process and a lot of people in the organisation fully understand the direction of what we're wanting to go. We are telling the full story, we are sharing with people but this is big change and change is uncomfortable for some people and we understand that.
Christine Steadman, David Adams thank you very much for joining us. And that's it for today. We'd like, as always, your views, you can call our action line on 0800 044 044, you can e-mail us at our website and there's also a podcast of today's programme available from tomorrow. From me, Peter White, my producer Kathleen Griffin and the team goodbye.
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