Hotel training includes disabled people
From the familiar purple decor to the signage encouraging guests to re-use their towels, if you stepped into the immaculate bedroom at Derwen College, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were actually in one of the thousands of Premier Inn hotels up and down the UK. In fact it is a fully functioning replica bedroom that has been cleaned and prepared by students with learning disabilities.
Although not used by guests, the room’s purpose is to allow students to prepare for real work placements at one of six hotels in the area. The specialist residential college is in Oswestry, Shropshire, and each year takes 273 learning disabled students of all different needs from across the UK. The college hopes that a student will soon be employed by one of the national chains it works with, after graduating from the college and going back to their home towns.
The college’s first Premier Inn success story could be Claire Brunt, 24, from Worcester, who is famous on campus for setting the room to precise and perfect standards. Brunt has Down’s Syndrome and has been training one day a week at a Premier Inn nearby for the last two years.
Now back home in Worcester, she is preparing to move out of her parents’ home and into a flat. She has just started a summer placement at a local Premier Inn and hopes to land a job when it finishes. Her parents can’t get over her confidence. Helping their daughter to become more independent when she reached adulthood was important to them. She gained a place, and local authority funding, to go to Derwen aged 19 and completed the initial educational programme three years later. She chose to stay for a further two years on its live and work programme, designed to build vocational skills.
Brunt laughs when asked about her perfect bed-making. “I do it all by myself. I have to work hard,” she says. “I really enjoyed my first day [on a previous work placement] and wasn’t nervous.” She says she wants to continue working for the company because it’s just great.
There are, of course, challenges. Rooms at the hotel have to be set to an exact standard in a very short timeframe – just 27 minutes. In order to help students reach the standard, tutors from the college, along with the college housekeeper, were trained by Premier Inn staff so they could pass the skills on. The hotel chain now hosts 11 students on placements across six hotels, working not just in housekeeping but also on reception and in the hotel restaurants. Tutors and hotel staff stay in close contact to monitor the progress of the students.
Simon Birch, work placement and transitions manager of Derwen college says:
“We want to build independent skills and improve their employability to ensure there is an outcome at the end of it all. Ideally, the outcome would be paid employment – that’s what we’re always pushing for – but for some students the best result may be voluntary work [for a charity].”
But is the college being ambitious enough? Birch admits that not all students will want to find work in hotels or supermarkets and on campus they can learn everything from beekeeping to filmmaking. The demand for arts and media work placements is high, for example, but Birch and his team struggle to find suitable placements in these sectors.
It is not just the students who say that they benefit from the partnerships.
Tracey Bishop, cluster general manager for Chester and Wrexham Premier Inn agrees:
“I was so inspired when I first went to Derwen. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. We had been approached by one of the team and were invited to visit. We were all blown away by the passion and commitment of the college staff. We all came away determined to help.”
Setting up the replica room last summer was a turning point that has enabled 11 students to be trained to Premier Inn standards (a further 14 will be trained in the next academic year). Says Bishop: “It has helped enormously with their confidence and helped increase their speed in an environment that they are comfortable with. We know the college wants more students to come to us. They are thinking big.”
“It’s not just about the job for the students, it’s about the interaction they have with the other members of staff. They come in so shy but soon become part of the team, attending staff meetings and celebrating birthdays. It also helps with the development of my staff as leaders in the business.”
The scheme is just one of several initiatives pioneered by Derwen, which was founded in 1927, and featured on Tuesday in a BBC3 documentary, Life Begins Now. The Premier Inn training has won praise from disability campaigners for showing that learning disabled people can learn skills and work alongside non-disabled people.
Kaliya Franklin, who co-founded People First England, an advocacy organisation for people with learning disabilities, thinks this is just the start.
“Only seven per cent of people with learning disabilities have had paid work. There’s a lack of both ambition and opportunity for people with learning disabilities when it comes to paid work and the government making people with learning disabilities poorer will only increase their barriers to work, not help them find employment.”
Peter Beresford, professor of social policy at Brunel University, and co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, a service user-led organisation and network, says:
“If we were living in an ideal world, it would be great if companies like John Lewis and Waitrose had careers for everybody but the real world has a very discriminatory job market. What Derwen is doing is a really positive building block for people with learning disabilities.”
Written by Nicola Slawson
First published in the Guardian Tuesday 4 August 2015.
Republished here with permission.