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Adding a special ingredient

Carolyn O'Grady visits a school where learning difficulties present no bar to cooking to perfection. Penkford School for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, in the Metropolitan Borough of St Helens, has always put a high premium on technology. But it wasn't until last year, when its bid to the Department for Education's Technology School Initiative was successful, that it was able to put into practice plans it had nursed for a long time. It was one of only two special schools to benefit from the TSI scheme.

The award of Pounds 171,000 enabled the school to enhance its work-related technology curriculum with a built extension and equipment. Now probably the best-equipped technology centre in a UK special school, Penkford has a food technology room, computer suite and textile workshop of which any catering company or business would be proud.

It also has a smart, well-equipped conference and audio-visual room which can be hired out on a commercial basis for meetings or seminars. Students will do the catering, giving them on-site work experience and allowing them to be assessed for national vocational qualifications (NVQs) at the school.

Penkford had already established a flourishing catering initiative, offering buffets in school hours and evenings for organisations such as Pilkington Glass, but the school was unable to comply with recent environmental health regulations and had to put a stop to these activities.

Until the award, that is. Penkford now has a state-of-the-art catering and food technology facility, which is finished in line with the most recent EC environmental health legislation. At the end of the summer term it hosted a meeting of the Lancashire special needs school heads in the conference room as a trial run, and last term its business was again up and running on a commercial basis.

Teachers at Penkford wear a lot of hats. The school's primary role is to serve 120 four to 17-year-olds with moderate learning difficulties, some 26 per cent of whom also have emotional and behavioural difficulties and a similar percentage motor co-ordination problems. But it also operates a Special Needs Resource Centre, which lends out materials and equipment to over 200 pupils in the borough's 42 primary and six high schools, and a motor co-ordination unit, serving its own pupils and those from mainstream primary schools. Every Friday morning children attend a "clinic" where their difficulties can be analysed and exercise programmes offered and monitored. On top of this, the school provides outreach support to the parents of very young children in their homes.

Priority at the school is given to practical courses leading to vocational qualifications. The new extension and equipment will be used mainly for technology at key stage 4 and for further education courses including 14-16 NVQs. A strong link has been established with St Helens Community College, where students go at least one day a week to do practical vocational courses, including welding, media studies, painting and decorating and motor vehicle maintenance. Now they will be able to do more practical vocational work on their own premises.

Designed by an architect and teachers Audrey O'Donnell (head of technology) and Pat Bean (deputy in charge of the senior school), the extension and its equipment were the result of thorough research. The two teachers visited catering facilities in factories, companies and other schools and investigated what computer equipment companies used. "We went for equipment we knew we wanted and would never have the opportunity to get again," says Pat Bean.

Entered through an area which is a meetingcoffee place for clients using the conference facilities, and a display area for students' work, the extension consists of a number of rooms.

Catering for the conference room is done in the sophisticated catering and food technology facility, which is also where key stage 4 food technology is taught, along with an NVQ module in basic food hygiene has begun. There are also occasional "world of work" weeks, week-long business simulations held there. Recently students were workers and management in a marmalade factory.

Next door is the business studies centre with eight Research Machines computers, laser printers and video editing equipment, plus an overhead projector. Penkford students have joined up with their peers from St Helens College to make and edit videos, including one on work opportunities in the area. This term the school will begin using new CD-Rom encyclopaedias, and word-processing and drawing packages.

The award has enabled the employment of a full-time technician who works mainly in this room and the resource centre and helps with staff and pupils from other schools who come in to the use the centre.

Elsewhere is the textiles room, which has received a new kiln and sewing machines, and an already existing woodmetal craft workshop.

As an extension of the service offered by the resource centre, all the IT equipment and pottery facilities are made available to other schools in the area, not for loan, but for teachers to come in with or without groups of children to try out, say, computer packages and the pottery equipment.

That the pupils and staff of Penkford School are outward-looking and enterprising can hardly be in doubt. Their latest project bears witness. Students are putting together a book of famous people's favourite recipes. So far they have received recipes from, among others, Lenny Henry (Killer Chili); Clint Eastwood (Spaghetti Western) and Terry Wogan (Chip Buttie). They have already designed and edited the book on their word processor and would like it known that they are looking for a national publisher.

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