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Be my eyes

A resource centre for visually impaired children is a model of inclusive practice, writes Yolanda Brooks

Lucy Farrar is a 19-year-old psychology undergraduate with A-levels in maths, biology and sociology. Toby Ott, 12, plays the piano and is learning to play the drums. He says he's Eminem's biggest fan. Aaron De Allie, 13, is a bit of a computer whiz and spent his last summer holiday at computer classes for gifted children. This diverse trio may have different interests and talents but they all have two things in common: they have attended Crown Woods school in Eltham, south London, and they have some level of visual impairment.

Crown Woods, a mainstream comprehensive (the biggest in London), has set up a resource centre for visually impaired children, recently opened by Chris Holmes, the visually impaired swimmer who won nine gold medals at the Barcelona and Atlanta Paralympics.

Lucy, now at the University of Greenwich, was the sixth-form student who set the project in motion. In 1997 she decided she wanted to go to a mainstream sixth form. She chose Crown Woods, and was the only visually impaired child on the school's roll. "It was scary," she says, "but I got used to it. I was the guinea pig, so we learned from the mistakes." Equipment to help Lucy keep up with the work was limited, but her continued attendance was considered a breakthrough. Encouraged by her progress, the staff began to think about improving access for more children.

The school has made the physical environment more accessible with tactile pavements and low handrails. But it is the new resource centre that staff are most pleased with. The teacher in charge of the centre, Emily Worrall, says it's the only secondary provision of its kind in Greenwich or neighbouring boroughs. "It is the best thing I have ever done," she says.

Headteacher Michael Murphy is proud of the school's achievement. "It is a wonderful example of inclusive education," he says. "It is good for the whole school community, and it is highly inspiring and uplifting for all of us to see children overcome the odds."

The centre stocks all the equipment needed to make the curriculum accessible for visually impaired pupils. This includes computers loaded with Supernova software, which enlarges type and synthesises words, a BrailleLite computer, which has a Braille keyboard and prints in Braille and standard type, and an Infuser, which embosses images. The centre also has talking tape measures, calculators, scales and thermometers, raised dominoes and Connect 4 pieces and scented pens.

Staff can bring lesson plans to be prepared in a format suitable for a particular pupil, and equipment can be booked out to individual students. Pupils who use the resource centre are expected to be there first thing in the morning only if they need to collect something. For the rest of the time, they are out among the other pupils, getting any help - if they need it - from their peers. "There is a great sensitivity and understanding and we look to the other students to help," says Emily Worrall.

The aim is for the visually imaired to feel part of the school as much as possible and to encourage understanding from other pupils, who - to date - have been "falling over themselves" to act as guides and buddies. Aaron, who attended a mainstream primary with support from a specialist peripatetic teacher, is in his second year at Crown Woods. He says the help of staff and students made getting used to the mainstream environment easy. "It was a bit scary but I settled in on the first day," he says.

The centre has one part-time and two full-time teachers, one part-time technician and four part-time learning support assistants. But it isn't just the efforts of the specialist staff that makes things happen; it's the co-operation of the rest of the team that makes full integration possible. "The staff are wonderful," says Ms Worrall. "It is as if they have done it all their lives."

Sam Webber, Aaron's maths teacher, returns the compliment. She says training from the specialist staff has made the process of integration painless. "The staff haven't just been thrown in at the deep end. There has been lots of in-service training for these children's teachers or for those who have an interest. We've been able to come down and get hands-on experience with the equipment; they know how long it takes to prepare the work and how difficult it is."

Ms Worrall estimates that the centre and the other adaptations have cost pound;30,000. That money has come from the Schools Access Initiative - a government scheme to get more special needs children into mainstream education - and from Greenwich borough council. And, as well as funding through statements, visually impaired pupils get money from the local council based on assessments. Ms Worrall is hoping for more funds to improve signing around the school on walls and floors, to enhance the playground with a garden and install lifts for disabled pupils. At present, there are four visually impaired pupils, but the school hopes to increase that number to 25 within five years.

Before his post-election move from education to the Home Office, David Blunkett was pushing SEN access up the educational agenda, and in March pound;50 million was allocated to the Schools Access Initiative. The climate of inclusion will be further established if the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill becomes law as expected in September 2002. The legislation compels local authorities and schools to improve choice and opportunities for children with special needs.

With more money available and increasing political pressure for inclusion, many more schools are likely to follow the lead of Crown Woods. Staff there have proved that with the will (and the money) inclusion can be a positive experience, rather than an onerous task.

Sam Webber says: "We have all these pupils with problems that could hinder their learning - but don't. They are keen, they are motivated and the team works hard to make sure they have access to all the learning. It is a learning experience for the whole school because the children are learning to integrate and to overcome their fears and prejudices."

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