Last September Mark Brierley, head boy at Egerton Park Community High School in Denton near Manchester, welcomed David Blunkett MP on a visit to the school. "I wrote to say come and have a look - come and see how good it is," he says. Mark was referring to the whole school, but for Mr Blunkett it would have been particularly interesting that Egerton Park School is the Tameside Centre for Visually Impaired Students of secondary school age. Mark, like Blunkett, is blind.
"He was dead nice," says Mark of the MP, an inspirational role model. Next year Mark goes on to a sixth-form college to study A-levels. He wants to be a lawyer.
Part of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council's Visual Impairment Specialist Support Service - there is also a resourced primary school and a peripatetic service which visits visually impaired children in their local schools - the centre was established in l992 and supports eight statemented pupils.
The policy "is to keep young people in their local mainstream schools wherever possible, but to provide resourced schools for the more severely visually impaired", says Sue Lee, head of the service. The advantage is these young people are well supported in a school which has become practised in meeting their needs; the disadvantage is they have to travel further and don't necessarily come to the school with their friends.
The two-room centre is "not a unit to which young people are withdrawn from lessons", Sue Lee emphasises. "The vast majority of their time is spent in normal lessons, but occasionally pupils need extra time to complete tasks or to explore areas of the curriculum in their own way. In science, for example, they may need time to look at raised drawings, to touch models or handle the real thing - different leaves in biology, say."
Time is also given to specific skills, such as Braille, touch-typing, and use of technology, including computers and closed-circuit television. Otherwise, the service supports pupils in lessons through a mix of prepared materials, technology and teaching in the classroom. Support teachers read information to pupils when teachers haven't had time to arrange with the centre to have large-print copies made.
Students' needs and ways of coping vary considerably. Mark Brierley has teacher support in most lessons and makes extensive use of a Braille laptop computer with a speech facility. He can check his notes as he goes along or store speech on disc. He also has a small printer which prints out his notes in Braille or print. Sometimes he uses a mechanical Brailler.
Andrew Stokes, an academically very successful 15-year-old, who is severely visually handicapped, makes use of a battery of devices including CCTV and a Qwerty keyboard laptop computer on which he writes his notes. He can view them on the screen in a very large font, or, like Mark, listen to them using the speech facility. He uses a bit of Braille and also listens to tape-recorded material. Teacher support is provided in most lessons.
Kate Dewsnap's sight is better and she can make do with large-print sheets or a magnifier, so requiring less teacher support. For maps or diagrams she uses CCTV.
Sue Lee makes no bones about the fact that integrating visually impaired young people is not a cheap option. Apart from the large investment in technology and materials there is a lot of work in preparing materials.
Some Brailling is done at the centre, but whole books are usually transcribed by prison Braille units, which are cheaper than commercial operations. Several UK prisons have Braille units, where prisoners are trained to transcribe books into Braille using special typewriters. The centre was fortunate to find a prisoner who could Braille and speak French. He is now working on Mark Brierley's A-level textbooks.
Teachers have an important role. "You've got to plan ahead more, so that the centre has time to modify and prepare materials and provide support," says Janine Pace, who teaches English to a number of the visually impaired pupils. "Though they work very fast," she adds.
Initially, Sue Lee organised a day's in-service training for staff on working with visually impaired students. New staff are all given sessions as they join. There are also occasional updates. The centre provides teachers with information and advice on individual young people.
Basing the centre at the school has wider connotations. Because the school saw the visually impaired children as potential targets for name-calling they chose that time to instigate an anti-bullying policy, which has had a positive effect throughout the school, says headteacher John Hart.
Other students had benefited from having the unit in the school, he adds. "It makes them appreciate the difficulties visually impaired people face." He admits that "it was quite a shock when Mark arrived. Teachers found they had to think things through very carefully, but it was all to the good, it helped improve lesson planning."
Like Sue Lee, Mr Hart emphasises that the school doesn't put its visually impaired pupils "in cotton wool": the policy is to prepare them for independent life. Watching these confident young people suggests that the policy is working.