Mon 27 Mar 2017

WITT bridges the Gap

The classroom in Unit 1 at WITT in New Plymouth has the look of a school room. It’s a place of transition for students who have learning disabilities. There they learn health and safety, literacy and numeracy, computing, banking and budgeting, cooking, living and work skills. 

While the current STAR course provides a transition between school and tertiary, Vocational Skills is a bridge between tertiary education and employment. All students enrolled in Effective Work practice participate in work experience placements throughout the year.

Programme co-ordinator Jane Slinger believes despite the fact her department liaises with schools and government departments, many potential students don’t tap into the learning resource because they don’t know about it.

“Fortunately, and certainly for the first half of a year, it doesn’t matter if a student has not enrolled by the time courses start – we are able to take on students through the year, and many of them elect to take a selection of the programmes rather than all of it to help get up to speed. Often this makes it easier for learners to fit learning around other commitments such as part-time work’’

The course caters for students of any age 16 and over and enrols a significant percentage of adults. The main pre-requisite is that students are able to function reasonably independently within the tertiary environment.

The success rate for WITT is high. 

Blair Rowlands, who is confronting autism and anxiety, has achieved the Certificate in Vocational Skills but is one paper shy of completing the second year extension strand of Independent Living, also run by Vocational Skills. He has moved on to Life Skills Taranaki in Manadon Street, where he is under the wing of another former WITT graduate and tutor, Stewart Filbee.

Blair is one of 69 clients at Life Skills which continues him on a pathway to independence.

He takes a bus twice a week from Hawera using the Hawera-NP Connector to attend Life Skills where he is exposed to a mixture of exercise, work and socialising.

The 21-year-old was born in Hawera and was at Opunake High before going boarding in Christchurch. He was in the city during both the major earthquakes and saw first hand the destruction it caused. It was enough to convince him he wanted to go home, so he completed school in Hawera in their Endeavour Centre before enrolling at WITT.

Ask Blair for some biographical details and he will thread you a story with 1000 facts.

Ask about his experience at WITT and Life Skills Taranaki and he will tell you it has been a positive journey for him, notably because he has made, through a common love of computer games, a close friend who is now on sleep-over exchange.

“It feels like a real bridge I have crossed.’’

Stewart Filbee, Life Skills General Manager, says the organisation can provide guidance for clients for whom the bar for achievement expectations is not set high.

Many clients are likely to require individual care on a permanent basis, but others are on the cusp of being capable to look after themselves and go flatting – which is the first goal Blair will list when asked.

The role of Life Skills has changed with Government policies now in place to put more would-be clients straight into the work pool.

“Our Government funding is now more aimed at ensuring our clients get community participation,’’ he said. “A big goal is to move them on to services that can provide support to gain employment.’’

For Witt tutors, seeing students move on to the next level is a cause for celebration.

“It’s great when we see students progress to a point from where they need supervision on basic matter to a stage where they become almost self-sufficient and can hold down a job,” Jane Slinger says.

Access to the certificate in vocational skills course is open to students 16 and over who have some knowledge of numeracy, reading and writing skills, and can participate in a learning environment, have a level of independence to can meet personal care needs. Students who enrol qualify for bus passes and have used them from as far afield as Patea to attend classes.

Tutors Kath Tuffery and Gayle Avery joined the team together in the 1980s and have both clocked up 28 years’ service, on and off.

“The teaching hasn’t really changed,” Kath says. “Our students come to learn life skills in a safe environment and part of our work is to recognise their individual needs and cater for them. We spend a lot of time with students and families to ensure the best results are achieved.”

Photo: Blair Rowlands, left, is enjoying his time at Life Skills Taranaki.