Adrenalin for all

Westcroft college is a special school in more than one sense. It's the first of its kind to be awarded sports status, and as well as getting a buzz out of a range of thrilling activities, many of its pupils pass on their skills at mainstream schools. Steven Hastings reports

Andy Morris spends a substantial amount of his working week at Wolverhampton racecourse. But it's three wheels, not four legs, that excites him. He's a land-yachting expert, and he shares his expertise with the 180 pupils he teaches at Westcroft school and sports college, the first special school in the UK to be awarded specialist sports status.

Westcroft takes children aged five to 16 with moderate learning difficulties - then puts them in a dinghy on wheels on a windy day, clocking them at speeds of up to 50mph. "We built our first land-yacht from scratch," says Mr Morris. "It was a brilliant design project and helped the kids to understand how they work. Now nearly half our pupils do land-yachting; it's a massive adrenalin rush."

The extra funding that comes with specialist sports status, awarded in September 2000, has allowed Westcroft to develop its DIY skills further. A full-time sports technician builds canoes and table tennis tables - as well as land-yachts and a jetty at a local sailing club that will give disabled pupils access to boats. Sport has always been important to the school, but now, explains Tony Chilvers, head for 32 years, it "buzzes".

"It's changed the way the school is seen by others and the way we see ourselves," he says. "Becoming a sports college has put Westcroft at the heart of the community."

As the only specialist sports college in Wolverhampton, Westcroft shares its facilities and expertise with other local schools. Its pupils are encouraged to mix with those from mainstream schools; some even take on a teaching role, particularly with sports such as sailing and land-yachting. "To teach other children - especially children from a mainstream school - is a wonderful boost to their self-esteem," says Mr Morris. "And their communication skills come on in leaps and bounds."

Encouraging pupils to teach is part of a longer-term strategy. The difficulty of finding employment is a major issue for many, so the school is heavily involved with the Sports Leader Awards run by the British Sports Trust, and has had some notable successes. One of last year's leavers now helps to teach swimming in a mainstream school, and is paid as a lifeguard.

Tony Chilvers is keen to emphasise this wider context to sporting enthusiasm. All the sports teachers at Westcroft are involved in the literacy programme and hear the children read. And no one is allowed to represent the school at sport unless their work and behaviour are on track.

"Sport isn't something separate," he says. "We certainly don't want to put the message across that sport is important and other things aren't. But from a very young age these children have been told they're not good at reading or writing. Our job is to raise their self-esteem; sport is one way of doing this. It's not the only way, but it's the one we've chosen."

Sport gives Westcroft pupils a chance to compete on an equal level. They may have difficulties in the classroom, but many excel on the pitch. School teams regularly appear in local tournaments and play competitive fixtures against mainstream schools. "It helps our pupils understand that although they come to a special school, it is a very good school that they can be proud of," says Mr Chilvers.

But organising these after-school activities is not easy; 85 per cent of the pupils depend on pre-arranged transport, so Mr Chilvers has had to negotiate a lengthening of the school day once a week to create an extra hour for sport.

If Westcroft had not become a sports college, many of these innovations would have been impossible. Gaining the status was, perhaps, the biggest challenge - not least because of the pound;100,000 the school had to raise. "We got sponsorship of about pound;62,000 from an American company called Timkin Aerospace. That made it much easier to raise the rest of the cash. We've even had a visit from a space-shuttle astronaut as a result."

The fundraising continues. Westcroft is in one of the most deprived corners of Wolverhampton, with 60 per cent of pupils on free meals, so the school has had to find ways of making sport affordable. The Westcroft Community Foundation was set up to raise money for the next stage of the school's development, which includes a pound;3 million scheme for a sports hall, dance studio and swimming pool - but it also gives individual bursaries to pupils who need financial support to take their sport further. One boy who recently arrived was clearly a talented athlete, so the foundation paid for him to join the local athletics club and bought him a pair of running spikes.

The extra administration involved in being a specialist school has fallen to Paul Lord, director of sport, who won special school teacher of the year in this year's West Midlands regional Teaching Awards. He believes the award of sports college status has boosted the morale of all the staff, and is delighted that the local education authority has recognised a special school as a centre of excellence.

He has a strong team at his side. All staff are offered training in sports, and the school buys in professional coaches to cover any gaps in expertise. Dance is important too, and staff have developed a programme of movement for children with learning difficulties which is soon to be rolled out across the UK. There is also an exhausting programme of visits and trips, all heavily subsidised. Every other Saturday a party of Wolverhampton Wanderers fans leaves Westcroft for the football ground at Molineux. And, as a licensed provider of specialist adventure activities, the school offers every pupil the chance of at least one residential course a year to try mountaineering, orienteering and rock-climbing.

Without regular trips to the seaside, land-yachting may not have become such a mainstay of the Westcroft timetable - while Wolverhampton racecourse is handy for mastering the basics, land-yachts work best on a beach. Last year, at Le Touquet in France, pupils picked up tips from world champion Pierre Lambert, and there are regular visits to Morecambe Bay.

Tony Chilvers is convinced there is much more to these excursions than a break by the sea. "It's fundamental to what we do. It's about learning basic life skills. Most of our pupils have little independence in their lives. But here they are, bombing along in a land-yacht. The responsibility and discipline, the problem-solving - the independence!"

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