When Lewis Marshall was looking forward to starting a new college course, his parents were seeking some reassurance. This was because 20-year-old Lewis, who lives with them in Prudhoe, is on the autistic spectrum and this move represented a major new challenge for him.
His mother Rebecca Marshall recalls: "I was worried about the change for him as he had been attending the Percy Hedley School since he was tiny, but he was looking forward to working with the animals at Northumberland College.''
The Inspire course at Northumberland College's Foundation Academy is designed with young people like Lewis in mind.
It is for students who have an EHCP (Education Health and Care Plan), ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition), moderate and or mild learning difficulties. It provides them with teachers and support staff who can work with them in safe and practical environments to build and develop personal and social skills.
Northumberland College has invested in a specially-built classroom at its Kirkley Hall Campus - where there is already horticulture, a farm, equine and outdoor pursuit centres - and has employed a dedicated course team leader for the new Inspire courses.
The programme was introduced in response to requests by parents to help their sons and daughters make the transition into the world of work and independent living.
Lewis is one of nine students - seven boys and two girls - on the initial first year of the Inspire entry level and level 1 courses, which concentrate on horticulture in Kirkley Hall's gardens and on animal care at the centre's zoo. The students, aged 16 to 20, come from all over Northumberland, with one learner from Berwick who stays in halls of residence. A 16-year-old could be on Inspire for two years, which would prepare them for progression to a Level 1 course at 18.
As part of the programmes, students learn key softer employability skills, including team work, how to travel, handle money, and communicate with members of the public.
"We will be developing solving problems, healthy living, effective communication, independent living skills, personal presentation and travel training,'' explains specialist lead Karl Rathmell. "All those skills that local employers want out of someone, particularly with our learners with moderate learning difficulties who need to develop further.''
The learners are set personal and academic targets and maths and English are also embedded into each Inspire course, which still remains flexible and tailored to meet the needs of the individual student.
"It's very much a course that's cut to fit the learner, so we are not setting a learner up to fail,'' adds Karl. "We have a dedicated support team that nurtures and supports in the classroom and during practical and academic activities. So, someone with an EHCP, for example, will have a support worker that is designated to work with them, either on a one-to-one basis or a one-to-two basis. We also work closely with external professional agencies.''
The college has always offered entry level and level 1 courses, but this is the first time they have been available over five days a week - a crucial difference for learners and their parents.
"It's a brand, spanking new course and it's five days a week, which is a magnificent bonus because most college courses are only three days,'' says Karl.
For Rebecca Marshall the fact that inspire provides education for five days a week was crucial.
She says: "Lewis is so hard to stimulate. If he was just doing three days a week, he'd just be sitting around doing nothing.''
Now, Lewis is taking Inspire in his stride.
"He seems to have settled in really well,'' says Rebecca. "He's adapted well because of the support he's had and he loves working with animals and he gets on well with his peers.''
After just six months the Inspire course is also making a difference to the other students.
"It's been very successful,'' says Karl. "One of the things we do with the Inspire group is to enable the learner to build in their own coping mechanisms and strategies and we've made some massive progression with our learners with their confidence and self-esteem.
"We've seen massive changes in our learners academically and we've seen some incredible changes in individuals. We've got students who weren't keen to present information in front of even a small class who are now quite happy to read out the work they've completed and join group discussions and that's an enormous move forwards for some of our learners.
"We also have individuals who struggled with working together with others but are now happy to work as part of a team. Socially, they are making friends, not just within their peer but also with other students at the college.''
This, he adds, is improving their employability skills and preparing them to go on to do other courses at Kirkley Hall.
Northumberland College intends to build on the success of Inspire with additional courses in the core vocational areas of hair & beauty, catering, sport, travel and tourism to be added to the curriculum in 2017/18. Karl believes that Inspire could be expanded to take between 25 and 30 students.
He says: "Hopefully, we will be an inspiration for other colleges to go forward with this model.''