Customers of the Riverview Restaurant at Thurrock College of Further Education in Essex have been happily switching from fresh crayfish and jugged hare to prawn bap and ham salad. It's all part of a pilot scheme that has turned the public restaurant into a snack service on a Monday to help students with special learning difficulties prepare and serve meals.
The scheme has also offered NVQ catering students the opportunity to gain valuable experience working alongside the trainees. From its start late last year, it has been so successful that it is being put on the permanent curriculum.
From Tuesday to Friday, the Riverview, which serves 40-50 customers per day and is one of three catering outlets at the college, is used by NVQ and GNVQ students who devise, prepare, cook and serve a three-course lunch menu with about six choices for each course. Average spend is £5 per head, with two courses costing £2.50. They also serve a weekly evening meal with an average spend of £10 per head, plus drinks, and a monthly gourmet dinner at £17 for three courses, including two glasses of wine.
On Monday, though, this all gives way to the Snappy Snack Service operated by special needs students working towards certificates in the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) - Towards Independence (TI). The service offers a range of hot and cold beverages, sandwiches, salads, hot snacks and sweets from the trolley. Prices range from £1.20 for sandwiches to £1.50 for vegetarian quiche salad, with desserts for 50p. Menu items are coded with a number and letter to help speed up service.
The food is prepared and served by the TI students, supervised by their NVQ colleagues. They also lay up the tables. Spend per head is again £5, and there has been no problem meeting the maximum target of 30 covers. This was decided on as it was felt that the TI students would not be able to cope with more. No extra funding was needed as the exercise comes within the education budget for the TI students and, as the restaurant operates as a classroom, it is run on break-even costing rather than turnover.
The scheme was the brainchild of Pam Thomas, the college's head of catering and community studies. She joined the college as a lecturer in 1979 and assumed responsibility for the special needs students when she took over Community Studies in 1996 and the two departments moved to one site.
"We're committed to equal opportunities as a college, giving all students access to facilities, and this includes the Riverview restaurant," Thomas explains. "Up until 1996, it had been used for training solely NVQ and GNVQ students, but was closed on a Monday. I saw a chance to help special needs students work towards their certificate by running a simpler operation on that day. I also saw it as an excellent vehicle for raising awareness of this group with mainstream students, college staff and the general public, all of whom use the restaurant."
NVQ students were asked to help and support the nine TI trainees on a voluntary basis, and the results have been highly satisfying. They keep a watching brief in the bar and restaurant areas, checking that crockery and cutlery are clean and tables are correctly laid. One of the spinoffs from the experiment has been that the NVQ students have widened their interpersonal skills as they have learnt how to encourage, support and advise the TI students without embarrassing them.
"One of the things that has delighted me most is the response from the NVQ students," says TI course tutor Paul Heywood, formerly assistant banqueting manager at the House of Commons. "We asked for volunteers and, despite reservations, they have taken to the job with such enthusiasm they come in on their days off. Several admit the experience has radically changed their perceptions."
NVQ student James Jackson, aged 16, says: "At first I thought the TI students would be helpless. Now I know they can do the job and are very keen. They are also not afraid of asking for help if they need it. I'd have no worries employing them, and I would defend them if anyone said they couldn't do the job."
Emma Ross, aged 17, says: "I'm more open-minded than I was before working with the TI students. They are open, friendly and prepared to learn what to do and then get on with it. They'd be an asset to the industry and I would certainly employ them."
TI students are unable to live independently when they come to college and the aim is that, after one or two years, they will be more able to deal with society and the general public. Training modules include spending money, meal preparation and understanding the cooking equipment. Their disabilities are linked mainly with learning problems rather than physical handicaps, although one student uses a wheelchair.
"In these days of staff shortages, the industry needs to be aware that there are young people, with special learning needs, who would be a great asset," says Thomas. "Sometimes they see them as stupid, and miss the point that these young people would willingly do the jobs that most people don't like, such as cleaning."
Following the success of the Monday operation, TI students can now also gain work experience by helping on other days of the week and during functions. Six are being interviewed for the Vocational Access Catering Course, for training geared to catering assistant/porter level for careers they had not considered before.
Thomas comments: "We're very pleased with the pilot scheme, and other colleges, the DSS and Mencap have all shown interest. It makes full use of the restaurant facilities, gives opportunities for TI students to learn catering skills and gain confidence with the public, and offers additional experience for NVQ students in learning about another group of people."