HIDDEN within the grounds of the Coleg Gwent Pontypool campus is a college which hosts 24 students.

Priory College is an independent, specialist co-educational college for young people with Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorders and associated conditions.

It is under Priory Education and Children’s Services who have colleges, schools and children’s homes across Wales and the UK.

It is run in partnership with Coleg Gwent and has been open since 2010. It helps those attending not only learn subjects such as English, math and ICT, but also helps them to learn life skills.

As well as being in partnership with Coleg Gwent, Priory College is attached to the actual college. It is fairly small with a sitting area/dining area, large kitchen, two classrooms, an IT suite, a therapy room and a quiet room.

College manager Kath Lawler has worked at the college for several years and believes the teamwork from both staff and students is “fundamental” to the college.

She said: “We have currently got 24 students and we have 18 attending mainstream college. They do anything from the Level 1 BTEC up to the Level 3 and then they progress onto university.

“Each person has an allocated support worker all of them are Level 2 autism trained, and they will be Level 3 at the end of the year. That support worker stays with them for the whole of the year, but then if they are there for two or three years we do change it round because we don’t want overreliance but they do need to feel comfortable. It works very well.

“It’s like a family atmosphere, its teamwork.”

Each one of the students has a weekly schedule which is filled with their college timetable, activities and therapy sessions which Mrs Lawler said helps them to keep organised and calm.

Independent living skills is also a core part of learning for the young people and it is also part of their schedules. It aims to help many of the children learn life skills such as independent travelling, home skills such as washing and cooking.

“What we do is we talk to the parents, we talk to the student and Careers Wales. We find the areas that need a bit of work on and a bit of confidence building,” said Mrs Lawler.

“Primarily they need to be travel trained, they need to be able to catch the bus independently – which might not sound a lot but it is a big deal for them.

“They also need money management, they are very vulnerable as well so they need to understand stranger danger.”

The college has a training kitchen which all the pupils are able to access, and as well as including a cooker, microwave and utensils it also has a washing machine and dishwasher.

“All our students can access meals within a budget, and any areas of weakness that they feel they need working on, you know, we try and build up their confidence.”

Therapy sessions are also held at the college for the pupils to help them with their communication and other aspects.

Mrs Lawler said there is a “lot of literal understanding” with their students so therapists are needed to guide them in the right direction.

“We’ve got therapists in to sort of teach communication skills, we’ve got an art therapist, a speech and language therapist and you know that altogether with the college is a complete package. They can be independent at the end of this. They make friends and they do a lot together.”

The students hold regular enterprise days at the college, where they make and sell cakes and other food. The funds that they raise help to pay for day trips out.

On Tuesday (April 4) students held their Easter fair and baked a variety of cookies, cakes and buns to sell as well as an Easter egg raffle. An afternoon tea was also held.

Executive principal of the college, Claire Imber said the support given to the pupils in vital in helping them progress and further themselves.

“What’s most important here is that the learners seem genuinely happy. You come in here and every time I come the students are engaged and happy and calm,” she said.

“They are accessing things that for example a lot of learners with special needs will often find it difficult to want to engage with their therapy as well. They worry about the barrier, they worry about the stigma.

“The students are coming here and because of the way they are being supported and they feel comfortable they are accessing therapy as well. They are making great progress.”

The progress of the college is reflected in its first ever Estyn report after it was inspected in January this year.

The report, which was published on Tuesday, rated the college’s current performance as good and its prospects for improvement as good.

It states that “learners engage well in their learning and make good progress” and says “staff work very well with learners to recognize their emotions and manage their behaviour”.

Mrs Lawler said she and the staff were “over the moon” about the Estyn report and that Priory College has been “recognised for its hard work in engaging and helping” pupils.

However, Mrs Lawler said she is most proud of is how easy it is for staff and learners to work effectively together.

She said: “You can’t help but care about these kids, and I think that if you came here you can see that every one of the support workers cares about them. They wouldn’t be in the job if it was purely for the money. You have to care about them to do what you do. Everyone is amazing here.”