Calthorpe school sits just outside Birmingham city centre. Wedged between an industrial estate and an area of run-down housing, it is surrounded by high security fencing and CCTV cameras. It has good car parks, but precious little greenery.
When Graham Hardy arrived, 16 years ago, the prospects were even less encouraging. "The school was in a poor state of repair and facilities were pretty appalling. Who would design a special school with a gym down four flights of stairs?" he asks.
From the beginning, Hardy's vision was of a school that had sport and physical education at its centre. Today, Calthorpe is a sports college with specialist school status.
"We achieved sports college status in September 2000 and were redesignated in 2004," he says. "We have just achieved Leading Edge school status, and we have a second specialism for science; we have just put in a bid for a third specialism - maths and computing."
The first step in that journey came with a determination to improve the school's facilities, starting with a swimming pool. Manic fund-raising involved the whole community, and the opening of a pound;360,000 hydrotherapy pool demonstrated to everyone just what could be achieved.
"The long-term vision was to build new facilities and that came about through a bid to Space for Sport and Arts in 2000," says Hardy. The lottery bid ran alongside the school's application for specialist status; success provided a sports hall and a fitness suite to add to the hydrotherapy pool.
The buildings were completed in 2004.
The sports college status was won in partnership with nearby Golden Hillock school, a mainstream school serving Birmingham's challenging inner city.
The schools work closely, and Calthorpe is a hub school, working with 31 other schools to develop sport and PE.
Graham Hardy employs a partnership manager to oversee that work, bringing in sports coaches and organising competitive events. A lot of this work is aimed at special needs pupils, both in special and mainstream schools. But some of Calthorpe's sports college work is purely in the mainstream. "We have always worked with mainstream schools," says Hardy. "It's correlation all the time."
Calthorpe organises an annual sports competition for Birmingham, for which it hires one of the city's prestigious arenas. "Our kids enjoy competition.
They take part in football tournaments and indoor rowing; we take kids to the Alexander stadium and the Solihull stadium, where they compete against other special and mainstream schools. We think it is very important to spend the money. Our pupils may have special needs, but they still need to learn about winning and losing," says Hardy.
Calthorpe is a school with inclusion at its heart, but Hardy's vision is of an inclusive education system in which special schools play an essential role.
"We have inclusion across the whole curriculum at Calthorpe not just in sport. We don't dis-apply our children from the national curriculum, regardless of their level of ability; we teach to the level they can achieve."
Last year's Ofsted report described the school as "exceptional... achieving its success through the hard work of all staff under the exceptional leadership of the headteacher, who empowers staff to take on and develop their ideas."
But Graham Hardy doesn't believe his school is the exception. "None of Birmingham's special schools are currently in special measures," he says.
"Here we have a group of schools that are dedicated to serving the needs of a wide range of pupils. If you removed the special school sector you would dilute that service. We employ specialist staff, nurses and speech therapists... mainstream schools aren't coping with the special needs kids that they have now. People who criticise the special school sector haven't spent any time here; our children enjoy school."
Calthorpe has a number of children based at Golden Hillock school; children who are on the Calthorpe roll, and who come back to Calthorpe for some lessons. "Those children will ultimately make the transfer to the mainstream system, in the meantime they are getting the support they need,"
Hardy started his teaching career at Langdon school in the London borough of Newham. Langdon is a mainstream school, and many of Calthorpe's staff began their careers in the mainstream. He's not convinced that special school teachers need to have had a special school training. "We don't need special school teachers; we need good teachers," he says.
But Calthorpe also develops its own staff. "We have taken two sports staff on as unqualified teachers; we then took them through the Graduate and Registered Teacher Programme route. They are now both on our staff, one as a dance specialist, one as a PE specialist."
Ski trip to the alps
A good example of the Calthorpe approach is last year's ski trip to the French Alps. Most teachers would back away from any long distance trip with special needs pupils; the idea of taking them skiing would seem foolhardy.
Hardy describes how the trip was organised. "We did it in partnership with Small Heath (mainstream) school. We linked in with a French school; their students have been here on work placements. We took 12 Calthorpe children.
"It was a traumatic experience for the staff. The kids didn't like the cold; they didn't like having to put their feet in their ski boots; the skis were cumbersome, the sticks were good weapons. We did wonder what on earth we had taken on.
"But the kids became accustomed. By the end of the week we had them skiing.
They couldn't stop, which meant that we had to stand at the bottom and catch them. It turned out to be a very successful trip."
Hardy would like to see more recognition for this kind of work in the special school sector; he'd also like to see earlier identification and support for children with special needs. "There ought to be a bigger focus on the nursery age child, many of whom could succeed in mainstream schools if they had the right support early in their lives," he says.
"We need people to value special schools; our kids deserve the best because they have hardships that will stay with them for the rest of their lives."