WESC Foundation has its origins in the Blind Institute founded in 1838 and formerly situated on St David’s Hill in Exeter. The Institute educated and cared for blind children and adults, providing both an academic curriculum and a trade training component, imparting skills which were thought to be appropriate to the blind, for example piano tuning and basket weaving.
Shortly after the Second World War a school for partially sighted children in Bristol was closed and the West of England School became responsible for partially sighted children as well as the blind. The governors appreciated that a city centre environment could be improved upon by moving to a green-field site. In 1949 14 acres was bought off the Topsham Road, near Countess Wear. In 1965 building began on this land and the WESC Foundation’s present site was developed so that in 1966 children aged five to sixteen comprising a mixture of boarders and day pupils could move in.
In the mid-1980s the school extended its age and educational range by building a place of further education for students aged 16 plus, effectively a sixth-form college. This innovation proved hugely successful with a number of students going on to university. The scope of the school and college was further extended by the building of St David’s House in 1991, at the time the first establishment in the United Kingdom purpose-built to care for and educate visually impaired young people with additional, often profound difficulties.
The educational policy of inclusion was first broadcasted in the mid-1990s and has been accelerated by successive governments ever since. This has meant that over the years, all of the children and young people at WESC Foundation have additional complex needs (learning, physical or mental difficulties) as well as their visual impairment. In 1992 there were no wheelchairs on the campus, twenty years later there are over fifty.
The organisation rebranded in January 2013 to WESC Foundation and has had close links with the city of Exeter and the surrounding areas for 175 years. It is a local, regional and national organisation whose reputation far transcends the boundaries of the United Kingdom. WESC Foundation offers a school, college, outreach service, social enterprise comprising of five charity shops, a research and development department, a training centre and provides adult services.
Local Education Authorities and those responsible for further special education look to us for knowledge and advice. WESC Foundation attracts visitors from as far afield as Australia, Africa, the United States and Europe, not to mention several Secretaries of Education and at least two Prime Ministers.
WESC Foundation has an impressive history of both royal and other patronage. HRH The Duchess of Cornwall succeeded HRH The Duchess of Kent in 2008, and served as Patron until 2018. Successive presidents included the Countesses of Morley and Arran and The Lady Clifford of Chudleigh. Similarly its list of vice-presidents is noted for not just its many influential names but for the practical help and encouragement it gives to the trustees and staff. The presidents and vice-presidents (among who are two Lord-Lieutenants, a Lord Bishop and a Privy Councillor) have been notably active when major fund-raising projects are in hand.