Caring is an art at space age school

Judy Mackie reports on the latest tools for helping children with severe learning difficulties to be independent. When a part-time clinical psychologist joins Linn Moor Special School in Aberdeenshire next term, this much anticipated development will be another innovation in educating children with severe learning disabilities.

Throughout its 107-year evolution from 19th-century holiday home for deprived children to state of the art residential school providing specialist care and education for children from all over Scotland, Linn Moor has shown that it is more than capable of adapting to the fluctuating demands of society.

As the rural retreat at the heart of Aberdeen's "Fresh Air Fortnight", introduced in 1889 by the Rev Alexander Webster, it provided a haven for the poor and sickly. Between the two world wars, it became a sanatorium for children with suspected tuberculosis.

After 1945, it reverted to a holiday home for the sick and deprived, but with improved public health and standards of living it was turned into a residential home and occupational centre for five to 16-year-olds with learning disabilities.

Today, as an independent special school administered by Voluntary Service Aberdeen and supported by charitable donations and local education authority funds, Linn Moor is meeting the social challenges of care in the community for severely disabled children who until recently would have lived in hospital.

A third of pupils are autistic and Linn Moor has in recent years undergone a rapid programme of development, both structurally and philosophically.

Barry Richards, deputy director of Voluntary Service Aberdeen, says: "As few of the children can tolerate sharing bedrooms, we have upgraded the residential accommodation to give virtually every child a room of his or her own. Classrooms and lounge areas have been made larger and more comfortable, and outdoors we have added activity areas such as a nature trail, assault course and cycle track.

"But perhaps the most exciting development is the range of Snoezelen sensory stimulation equipment which has been added to the school, in the soft play area, the white room and the swimming pool".

The equipment calms distressed children, helps improve motor, balance and co-ordination skills and enhances the fun and enjoyment of recreation time.

The soft play room is a riot of colourful squashy shapes which are used within a carefully tailored framework of physical activity with warm-up and wind-down periods.

The Pounds 12,000 white room is the stuff of science fiction, with colourful fibre optic tendrils, hypnotic bubble tubes, heated waterbed, aromatherapy machine, music and revolving coloured lights. The swimming pool, always a firm favourite with the pupils, many of whom go on to win awards, now has a Pounds 30,000 computer-controlled sound and light system,which, within minutes, can transform a churning cauldron of noisy children into a serene sea of calm souls.

Linn Moor's philosophical development has been less revolutionary. Harry Mulford, the principal, says: "The children's special needs are now such that we have increased our mid-eighties staff-student ratio of 1:9 to one member of staff for every two children, both in school and in the care setting.

"We now place a considerable emphasis on specialist training for all members of staff. Teaching staff are at various stages in attaining their postgraduate certificates or diplomas in special education needs, while all the care staff are working towards achieving their SVQs."

Since joining the school in 1992, Mr Mulford has helped to break down barriers between education and residential care, with the assistance of his deputies in each discipline, Mary Able and Marlene Arthur, and the support of the rest of the staff.

Through family doctors and parents, teaching, care and therapy staff Linn Moor has experts in speech and language, occupational, art, music and dance therapy to provide a unique programme for each of the 32 students.

Aged between five and 18, they are divided into five autonomous family groups which with the help of care workers organise their own meals, activities and outings, according to their abilities. The predominant message at Linn Moor is that every child can gain some control of their life. Social and domestic skills are taught during both leisure and school time and the curriculum follows the 5-14 guidelines, interpreted to maximise each pupil's development.

"It's good for the children to be able to share this common bond with their brothers and sisters on visits home," Mary Able comments. "It gives them a place in the world and helps them and everyone else to realise that they are not so different.

The school itself has always had a place within the north-east community, from the early days when church organisations would collect food and clothing to the donations from individuals, trust funds, companies and organisations that make possible the life-enhancing equipment and activities.

New developments on the cards include a themed tactile area, which the children will help to create, a sensory garden filled with plants and flowers of varying colours, textures and scents, and a refurbishment programme for a colourful new area dedicated to arts and crafts and sound and light and occupational therapy.

Most days, the atmosphere within Linn Moor reflects its quiet rural location. The emphasis is on calmness and quality of life. Problem behaviour is to a great extent alleviated by the patience and skill of the 78 staff members and the soothing distractions of the Snoezelen equipment.

But the inevitable crises do erupt and the new clinical psychologist funded by Grampian Health Board will be based half-time at the school.

Mary Able says: "Up until now, due to overall demand, we have had to wait for the services of a clinical psychologist, by which time problem A might have escalated to problem B, with problem C waiting just around the corner.

"The new post will mean we have someone here not only to address problems as they occur, but who will also play a significant part in each child's assessment process and thereby hopefully be in a position to anticipate and defuse difficulties before they arise."

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