When Elaine Colquhoun, president of Nasen, advocates a "village" approach to inclusion, what could fit the bill better than the new Hob Moor Children's Centre? Serving a deprived area outside the affluent centre of York, the children's centre combines under one roof primary school, special school, nursery, social services and health professionals.
Its new buildings, opened in late April, have been designed to enhance the inter-relatedness of its new community, the result of a collaboration between York City Council and private finance partners, Sewell Education.
The pound;7.5m centre brings together six partners: Hob Moor community primary school and Hob Moor Oaks special school, the Cherry Tree neighbourhood nursery, a fun club (operating before and after school and in the holidays), a Sure Start programme and a family support team.
While finishing touches are being made to the centre's facilities, the second phase of the building programme is underway, demolishing the former primary school to make way for landscaped playgrounds and playing fields to be shared with the local community.
Inside the centre, there is a palpable sense of the new partners trying hard not to step on each other's toes and to include each player in decision-making. But after only four weeks, Sue Williams, head of Hob Moor Oaks, says "it feels as if we've always been here. Colleagues seem to be more focused because we're in this lovely building and it's raised everybody's self-esteem."
True, it feels big and some of the sign-posting is institutional. But the spaciousness of the design coupled with the smooth running of the organisation combine to create a sense of calm and purpose, as the new community - teachers, professionals, parents, children with a wide range of needs - begins to take shape.
SCHOOLS WORKING TOGETHER
The original idea was that the two schools, primary and special, would be co-located and early drawings showed each housed in a separate wing of the building. This all changed, however, when the two head teachers brought their vision of an inclusive educational "continuum" to the discussions.
The architects came up with a much more integrated design, with primary classrooms on the outside of a large rectangle and parallel special school classrooms on the inside, giving onto attractive internal courtyards where children play. These classrooms are separated by a wide corridor or "avenue", which allows children to move easily between special and mainstream provision, as well as providing a further teaching space.
Forty per cent of Hob Moor Oaks children are severely autistic, but many had experienced some inclusion in mainstream classrooms before the centre was finished. Inclusion continues in the new setting, and more pupils will have opportunities to move between the two schools as the relationship develops.
Although each school is committed to building its own identity, sharing wherever possible is the name of the game. The heads have facing offices in the centre of the building allowing plentiful opportunities for informal as well as formal chats, while staff share three staffrooms. Many of the facilities - including large hall, sensory and soft-play rooms, state-of-the-art ICT - are shared, and both schools acknowledge the benefits in this respect that combining brings.
The hope, too, is that a common, thematic approach to the curriculum will be developed and shared by both schools, to ease children's passage between special and mainstream classrooms and help them to progress. Already the foundation stage is working on common themes - so that, for example, a girl from Hob Moor Oaks, who had been doing dinosaurs, transferred this week happily to doing dinosaurs and phonics when included in a mainstream classroom.
Amy Jefferson, 9, says the new school is "brilliant so far" and she finds the Hob Moor Oaks children "really interesting". "They do different stuff to us," she says, "like they move different to us. It's easy to get on with them and every Wednesday we come to see them in the playground."
Darius Shaw, 11, a Hob Moor Oaks pupil with cerebral palsy, says (with a teacher to interpret for him) that he "likes everything" and is especially looking forward to joining some mainstream lessons.
The children mix in a friendly way, and where appropriate, share time in the playground. Melanie Carson, deputy head of Hob Moor Oaks, looks on proudly: "Look, you wouldn't know which ones are ours and which ones are theirs."
PARTNERS WORKING TOGETHER
Hob Moor children's centre is bigger than just education. But children's educational needs are better served at the centre, says Sue Williams, by having the other partners on site. "What was happening before, when we weren't joined up, wasn't having the effect we wanted in terms of changing outcomes," she says. "Despite common goals, we were all working separately - which is not as effective. There's always the chance of a child falling through the net."
Carole Brown, a former head teacher and project consultant for the centre, believes that collaborative working will make it easier for the partners "to maintain support for families, having established it pre-birth".
The centre's Sure Start team, previously housed in the primary school, plays a vital role in building these early links and supporting vulnerable families.
This kind of early involvement with families is essential, argues Karl Jarvis, head teacher of Hob Moor community primary school. "Some of our children have a very low entry profile, but working with Sure Start means that their skills are more developed and they are more ready for formalised education when they start school."
Sure Start and the family support team have pooled their services at Hob Moor in what is known as "The House", a wing of the main building comprising a series of rooms on a more domestic scale. Jackie Walker, a social worker at The House, says she would have preferred to share the same door as the rest of the building, but believes that "multi-agency working is the only way forward... We've spent time building up relationships with parents from the local community and we needed to be part of this."
Health professionals, including physiotherapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists, operate from a therapy suite situated between the two internal courtyards.
The nursery and the fun club are the two commercial partners in the centre, offering a vital source of care - subsidised for some children by the local authority - outside school hours, including in the holidays.
Karen Pitt, deputy manager and Senco at the nursery, is delighted with the move from old Portacabins to the bright and spacious new rooms and is already feeling the benefits of having partners on site. As well as doing joint foundation stage planning, colleagues in the centre are a source of support, she says. "It means if there are any complications, you know you can go and speak to somebody."