Mary Woodall works as a part-time receptionist in a hotel. She travels there independently on a bus from the supported accommodation where she lives in Greenwich. The 26-year-old former student at Derwen College is one of a growing number of learners going into work after training and work experience at the college for young adults with learning difficulties and disabilities.

Fewer than six percent of working age adults with learning difficulties are employed in the UK. This statistic is one which the specialist residential college, in Shropshire, is determined to redress by working closely with forward-thinking businesses such as Premier Inn. Together they aim to change perceptions and provide practical advice for employers.

Derwen College, near Oswestry, and national hotel chain Premier Inn have built and continue to develop a five-year partnership aimed at offering students with learning difficulties a unique opportunity to gain work experience, leading to paid work when they leave college.

As a residential specialist college for young adults, Derwen has provided further education for those with learning difficulties and disabilities since 1927. The focus is on developing students’ independent life and work skills, which the relationship with Premier Inn has helped boost considerably in recent years.

Hotel 751, the extensive training facility donated by Novus Property Solutions, located within Derwen College, is believed to be a UK first in terms of mini branded hotels. Including a reception area, three en-suite bedrooms and a linen room, it is designed to give young adults with learning disabilities and difficulties the time and space they need to develop skills to carve out a career in the hospitality industry.

Work experience, along with extensive work and travel training, ensure that Derwen College students develop the skills needed to take on paid employment including reaching the workplace on public transport with minimal support and arriving on time, suitably dressed.

This summer, 10 Hospitality and Customer Service students are preparing to make the transfer from education to employment in a Premier Inn hotel – meaning that of the 36 students who have so far participated, 16 will have joined the working world. With an employment rate of 44 percent, this course beats the national average by 38 percent – showing the value of the initiative, which is helping to increase the 6 percent of working age adults with learning difficulties employed in the UK.

Derwen College’s partnership with Premier Inn began in 2013 when Premier Inn’s Area Manager, Tracey Bishop, was approached by Derwen College to support a student with a work experience placement in a Premier Inn hotel. Proving a success, Premier Inn saw the incredible potential of these students and an opportunity to facilitate more work experience placements. Working alongside Novus Property Solutions, the company built a Premier Inn training centre at the college providing industry standard training for the students.

In June this year, Derwen College hosted a Disability Awareness Day for Premier Inn and Whitbread regional and operations managers. They experienced Disability Awareness training, have-a-go activities in departments, a tour of the training centre, and talks by speakers who had been involved with the initiative from the beginning.

One of the speakers included former Derwen College student Mary Woodall who confidently addressed the large audience. Mary told the conference how she had been in paid employment working as a Premier Inn receptionist in Greenwich, south-east London since November 2016. She described her journey from student to employee, explaining how Premier Inn and Derwen created a training scheme which she began in 2014 as one of the first students on the scheme.

“I had already had trial work experience in the reception area at the Premier Inn at Derwen and one day when a team from Premier Inn was visiting the College, I took the initiative to ask if I could have work experience at a real Premier Inn Reception. After some consultation with the management, it was agreed that they would take me on in reception at a Premier Inn in Chester,” she explained.

“When I started at Premier Inn, Chester, initially I had some support with travelling but after a few months I was able to gain enough confidence to get to work independently. Initially I started doing morning shifts and progressed to evening shifts.”

In 2016, Mary graduated from Derwen College and moved back home to the Greenwich area where – with encouragement from Premier Inn Chester – she was able to continue her work experience at Premier Inn, Greenwich before being offered paid employment in November 2016.

She said: “My work on reception involves greeting the guests when they arrive and either I enter all their details on the computer or I assist the guests in the Kiosk where they can enter their own details. I’m pretty talkative and I enjoy chatting to the visitors when they arrive. Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage site and so we have many visitors from overseas, especially from Spain, visiting to look at the famous historical buildings such as the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Naval College.

“Being employed at Premier Inn has taught me important skills: to be punctual, time keeping and to have a smart appearance and make a good first impression; how to deal with all sorts of people and visitors to the hotel.

“Overall this has been a great scheme for me and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to do it. I am very grateful that Premier Inn were able to devise and run a scheme like this for people like me. I would like to thank the team for giving me this opportunity. And, of course, I hope I’ll be able to continue at Premier Inn, Greenwich, into the future.”

Watch this space – Derwen is optimistic that there will be many more stories like Mary’s to share in the future.

Address: Gobowen, Nr Oswestry, Shropshire SY11 3JA
Tel: 01691 661234
Fax: 01691 670714