Campus Cuts at Blind College
National specialist college sells off half its site, Henshaws Society for the Blind closes in Liverpool, and a visually impaired chef shares cookery skills with VI novices.
The Royal National College for the Blind has sold its southern campus to Herefordshire Council. Peter asks why did it have to be sold, and why did the council want to buy it?
After 25 years of providing services to visually-impaired people in Merseyside, Henshaws Society for the Blind is moving out of Liverpool. Henshaws' director of community services tells us why.
Jo Parsons used to be a chef before retiring to Devon a few years ago. She has not stopped cooking though, setting up a pudding club in her local community, to fund cooking lessons for aspiring visually-impaired cooks.
Yuen Har Tse is taking Aviva Financial UK to court for discrimination for not providing her correspondence in a format she can read. She tells us why she has taken this step.
Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Lee Kumutat
In Touch Transcript: 12-03-19
Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
IN TOUCH – Campus Cuts at Blind College
TX: 12.03.2019 2040-2100
PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
PRODUCER: LEE KUMUTAT
Good evening. Tonight: Balancing the books – why a national college providing vocational training for visually impaired students is having to sell part of its campus. And a long-established charity is telling blind Liverpudlians that their services are to be cut.
Also, tonight, the retired visually impaired chef who just can’t give up passing on her cooking expertise.
But first, the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford is the foremost provider of specialist residential vocational training for post-16s in the UK. Its courses include sport, drama, music, plus teaching daily living skills. But they’ve just announced that they’re selling part of their campus to Herefordshire County Council to help secure their future. So, why is that happening? Well that’s the question I want to put to the charity’s Chief Executive, Lucy Proctor.
Lucy, first of all, how serious is the financial position?
We’ve been experiencing difficulties, I would say, since the Children and Families Act became law in 2014. The act was intended to increase choice, it was meant to give young people a say in where they were educated, what they studied, what outcomes they were seeking to achieve. But funding reforms meant that local authorities became both the commissioner and the funder. The funding was no longer ringfenced and this coincided with the impact of austerity really hitting home. So, what we’ve actually seen is a huge increase in the obstacles, the barriers, in the way of young people who want to choose to come to a specialist college.
So, you just aren’t getting enough students basically?
That’s what it comes down to, yes. We’ve gone from about 95 in 2014 to about 75 now.
So, what effect are you hoping the selling of half of your campus is going to have?
The first thing to say is that the sale is part of a planned strategic response to this, it’s fundamentally going to underpin the other things that we need to put in place to achieve the long-term future of the college. So, the campus is far too big for us now, we bought it 40 years ago when we had up to 200 students and we’d already been renting out a large part of the southern campus to other education providers. So, actually realising that asset and putting ourselves on to a single site does make a huge amount of sense, as well as freeing up some of those funds. So, we’ll be reinvesting in moving those services across the other side of the road, a review of the curriculum and then really focusing in on increasing our student numbers, getting back up to that level of 95 over the next three years.
And how actually are you going to do that?
We’re looking at a range of options. I mean we do already do a lot more than vocational training, we offer a full curriculum of GCSEs, NVQs, A Levels, Aspire Programmes which are a foundation level. But we’re looking to local authorities and to employers around what kind of provision they really need, as well as what the young people are looking for. So, we’re looking at preparation for university, the opportunity to run shorter courses that are more skills based, so, with that emphasis on assistive technology, independent living skills, mobility rather than just relying on the two to three-year academic programme.
How much actually does it cost to educate a young visually impaired person at the college?
It varies depending on the programme but a typical fee for the full year would be between about £43,000 and £60,000 and that’s for residential, 24/7, provision.
And is that going to go down at all, I mean you’re broadening the offer and is that per year?
It is per year. The cost for those types of courses won’t go down but if we’re able to provide shorter courses – three months, six months – for specific skills those would obviously be coming in at a different fee rate.
It’s a lot of money, it’s more than they probably pay to go to Eton isn’t it?
The reality of funding a student to attend a mainstream school in a local area is often not different though. When you start factoring in the transport costs of going backwards and forwards if you don’t have the independence skills, often having to outsource things like mobility, independent living, braille, assistive technology, having a teaching assistant in the classroom, you can be spending as much money but the student doesn’t learn to study independently to live independently at the end of that time.
Lucy Proctor, Chief Executive of the Royal National College.
So, what about the motivation of the county council? I asked their Chief Executive, Alistair Neil, why they’d bought it.
So, the concern was that if the entire site fell into the hands of a private developer, which was always a likelihood, it would turn into a housing development and the opportunity to sustain and indeed develop the future of higher education and further education would have been potentially damaged. So, what we did is to really extend our commitment to economic development through an investment in young people learning at a higher education level on that site. What’s that going to allow us to do is to say well into the future to the college – look continue to use the southern campus in ways that will be good for the recruitment of young people and staff and the development of their courses.
But of course, if local authorities had been more willing to fund visually impaired people from the various areas it wouldn’t have been necessary for them to sell it would it?
In Herefordshire we’ve had to find a way to develop and deliver our services with the equivalent of approaching a £100 million less to spend every year. We can look at that as a problem and complain about it or we can get on with the situation and really make the most of it and that’s really what our focus has been.
Alistair Neil, Chief Executive of Herefordshire County Council.
And our second story could also be said to hinge on the past decade of major cuts to local authority budgets. Visually impaired people in Liverpool have recently received a letter telling them that the Henshaw Society for the Blind is withdrawing the majority of services that they’d been offering in the city. The letter said this was because Liverpool Council were withdrawing funds which they’d previously been providing. It seems that the days when local councils provided the care cake, while voluntary organisations just added the icing are long gone. But who does what nowadays is far from clear.
Rob Cooper is Henshaws’ Director of Community Services so why is Henshaw pulling out of Liverpool?
It’s been a challenging 18 months for our service provision in Liverpool and across Merseyside and ultimately, we’ve struggled with funding from various sources. So, unfortunately, we had to make the decision that it was time that we had to look to maximise our resources elsewhere and let somebody else take on the baton in Merseyside.
What do you mean exactly? Who is providing the services in Liverpool if not you?
Bradbury Fields, the Catholic Blind Institute, there’s a local society on the Wirral. We were all providing similar services. One of the areas that we weren’t providing services that were similar were children and young people, so we took the decision that we would withdraw our support to our adult service providers but we would continue to focus on children and young people.
Not everyone’s happy about this. I mean we’ve heard from one listener, Patsy Graham, who feels Henshaws has received a lot of charitable support from Liverpool over the years but has always tended to focus more on Manchester. What do you say to that?
There are other providers within the city region and Greater Manchester is where Henshaws was set up over 180 years ago and recently to help our colleagues and partners around Greater Manchester we’ve had to work with three fellow blind societies which were about to go under – out of business – and could no longer provide services and we’ve stepped in to work with local authorities, work with those charities to ensure that provision is in place. So, just on Friday, we finalised the arrangement with Thameside site and if Henshaws wouldn’t have stepped in there then we’d have been talking about 800-1,000 people without any services. So, I think, yes, it’s unfortunate that Liverpool, we’ve had to withdraw our support to adults in Liverpool but I’m confident that our partners, such as Bradbury Fields and the Catholic Blind Institute, will be there to help pick some of those people up.
Now your letter to your beneficiaries in Liverpool coincided with Henshaws being unsuccessful at securing a grant that it had had for the previous three years, that was from the council. Why do you think you lost that?
Liverpool have had to make some significant cuts over recent years and they’re talking that in the last 10 years up to 2020 you’re talking £444 million will have been taken out of Liverpool. They told us that they were oversubscribed with applicants for this recent grant round, so it’s a competitive environment that charities are operating in and there’s not, unfortunately, enough money to go around everybody.
Rob Cooper, Henshaws Director of Community Services.
So, after all of that it’s good to hear about someone who far from cutting back seems to be forging ahead with her own brand of service. Jo Parsons is a visually impaired chef. She’s worked for a catering company, she also taught cookery to blind and partially sighted students in Birmingham. Jo is now supposed to have retired to South Devon but it hasn’t worked out that way. Our reporter Toby Davey has been along to see her in action and found out more about her so-called pudding club lunches and her cooking with confidence classes.
I never set out to come down and actually find work. I was going to retire and maybe just do a few bits and pieces. But what made me sort of get back out there was the fact that I really missed my friends and I felt quite isolated. Brett settled straight away but I didn’t and eventually he sort of suggested to me that I should invite a few local ladies round for lunch and he said, there’s going to be – out of eight of them – there’s going to be a few of them that you’re going to find something in common with. So, that’s duly what I did and they thoroughly enjoyed the food that I cooked and a few of us sat out in the garden late that evening, talking about life and I basically said what I’d really love to do is set up a pudding club, but I’d like to still give something back to visually impaired people.
We’re serving the puddings out there.
All of them? So, none of…
Apart from the Tunisian Orange, which we’ve decided is probably going to be about the third pudding out, so that’ll be done on plates and will go out.
So, that is the only pudding we’re waitressing on?
Yes it is, the rest are all coming up for.
When you initially moved and decided to do this did you find any sort of negativity towards it at all, were people…?
Ooh yes, absolutely, definitely. Offered to help with various things and was sort of in a nice sort of way told that best to leave the people that knew what they were doing in the kitchen really.
You could start it with a queen, that’s a very good idea.
Quite nice isn’t it…
Oh right we’ll do that, the Queen of Puddings is…
Yeah bring out the queen first.
…bring out the queen first.
That’s a really good idea.
The pudding clubs have been a fantastic success. I was at one yesterday and sticky toffee pudding came up top. What was the sort of set up for them, what was the main reason for setting up the pudding clubs?
To give me some sort of self-worth and also to create some sort of funding to be able to give visually impaired people a chance to be able to come and cook in my kitchen. So, the way it’s run, the people that come get a choice of two main courses, one being vegetarian and then they get to enjoy five delicious homemade puddings. And then they vote, the guests vote for their favourite, she becomes Queen of Puddings and appears at the next pudding club.
So, what would you say to a visually impaired person who’s wanting to take their first steps into a kitchen and doing some cooking, what advice would you give them?
I’m going to get first-hand knowledge of this Toby because I’m going to see a gentleman on Wednesday who is 90 years old and has been married for 66 years and has never cooked a meal because his wife has always done it and he now wants to learn to cook. So, we’re going to go from basics all the way through, so he can actually manage to look after himself, if the need ever comes. But also, I think his wife’s really looking forward to having some meals cooked for her. We’ll start off with simple things, we’ll start off with basically poaching an egg, making an omelette, making soup – just basic things that are nutritious and easy to do. And then we’ll progress but we’ll progress when that gentleman is comfortable.
What are the sorts of main dishes and recipes that people want to learn to cook?
Well it varies from person to person. I’ve had a young lady come from Tavistock, had never cooked before, she made lasagne, she made a cheese sauce and we turned that into cauliflower cheese, she made pavlova. She didn’t think she’d be able to separate eggs because she couldn’t see very well, she didn’t falter on one egg, she was absolutely fantastic and actually couldn’t believe how easy making meringue was. And that really boosted her confidence.
And what are the sort of responses when people have been able to cook those dishes and recipes they wanted to do, what do they say to you after the sessions?
I had a gentleman come for a lesson, in fact he came for probably four or five and had never made pastry, he was 50 years old, was told at school that he would never cook because he couldn’t see very well. And one of the things he wanted to do was make pastry. We made lots of other things as well. His pastry was perfect and as he was rolling it out and lining his quiche dish, he said – look at me, I’m a great grownup chap and I’ve actually got tears in my eyes because this was something I was told I wouldn’t be able to do and I can’t believe I’m doing it. What is really lovely is when you can cook for someone else and appreciate the fact that they’ve enjoyed what you’ve produced. That is such a feel-good factor, that, if anything, is going to boost anybody’s morale I think that is a thing that will do it.
That’s visually impaired chef Jo Parsons with our reporter Toby Davey.
And we end with another woman who believes that if you want a job doing you’d better do it yourself. Yuen Har Tse is taking a pension company to court in an equalities case. Not only that she’s representing herself. She’s been telling me about the circumstances.
I’m bringing a disability discrimination case against Aviva Life Services UK because I’ve had a lot of problems where they have not automatically given me my correspondence in braille format and they know I need it. So, a lot of the time I get a letter and I have to get somebody to read it and then request it from Aviva. Now my issue is that I don’t want a sighted person to read all my financial information, it makes me feel vulnerable. And Aviva, like all financial organisations, have a legal duty to provide blind people with correspondence in a format that they can read. So, I’ve decided to take them to court because I’m not getting anywhere with them resolving this.
So, how long has this been going on because it isn’t one isolated case is it?
No, so I became a customer of theirs September 2015, the following year I started legal action because I wasn’t getting anywhere and we settled out of court, so I have taken them to court for disability discrimination before and we settled – I’m not allowed to talk about the terms of the settlement. And things improved for a while but now it’s all gone back to them sending me letters in print again and me having to ask them to put them into braille.
What reasons have they given you for the fact that they were able to do this and now they’re not?
Well basically they haven’t got their processes together enough so that all routes lead to one place that then says this person needs braille. But they’re now telling me that they’ve fixed things but they’re still sending me letters in print without the braille, even though we’ve got a court hearing in three weeks’ time. I just think that they, being a multinational global company, need to step up to their responsibilities and treat us like they would treat their sighted customers.
Yuen Har Tse.
Well we did, of course, contact Aviva, they told us they can’t comment on an active case.
Well, we’d welcome your comments about that story or indeed about anything else in tonight’s programme. You can now contact us directly and leave a voice message. Please leave a number as well if you’d like us to call you back, we can’t always do that but we’ll do our very best. Our number is: 0161 8361338 – 1338 – you can email email@example.com or click on the contact us link at www.bbc.co.uk/intouch. And from there you can also download tonight’s and previous editions of the programme.
For tonight, from me, Peter White, producer Lee Kumutat and the team, goodbye.