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Community inspiration

Volunteers at the Aberdeen Camphill Rudolf Steiner school can take their interest in curative education on to a degree, writes Judy Mackie Huge home-made flags wave furiously in time to the drumbeat. Young voices blend with the teacher's sonorous tones, as they repeat the inspirational words of William Wallace, calling his countrymen to arms. Each child does what he or she can to contribute to the patriotic passion of the moment and, as the poem reaches its powerful climax, the small classroom becomes a world of whirling colours and rhythmic sound.

The exhilarating recitation ends and calm is carefully restored as the children are helped to their seats by two classroom assistants. Gill Shuttleworth, one of the world's first students taking a degree in curative education, makes sure a boy who needs the support of a wall pad, is sitting comfortably, and takes a young girl to the toilet. Soon the 10 children aged seven to 14, all of whom have special needs, are ready for the next part of their history lesson - an introduction to Scotland's early kings.

As their teacher, Clive Lancaster, sets the scene, the door opens and one of the children, seated in a wheelchair, is gently removed by a young woman. It's time for his therapy. The flow of the lesson is uninterrupted, as everyone has been briefed by Clive on who can expect to see which therapist at what time. The children come and go throughout the morning, guided through their individual programmes of education, therapy and care, by teachers, therapists and co-workers like Gill.

It's a typical weekday at the Aberdeen Camphill Rudolf Steiner School, and it represents a way of life which has been Gill's entire world for the past two-and-a-half years.

Her working day has begun long before entering the classroom. As a Camphill volunteer, she is also a group parent in one of the 10 chalet-style houses on the community's rural Murtle Estate and is responsible for three youngsters aged between 13 and 17. That means getting up through the night if she's needed; helping them get ready and have breakfast in the morning and carrying out some household chores before school starts at 9.15am.

A few hundred yards away, in a neighbouring school house, her fellow student Matthias Kurt, is helping an older boy with his maths. The class for 15 to 16-year-olds has split into ability groups, involving one-to-one sessions between individual pupils and their teacher, or one of the co-workers.

The school's teaching methods are based on Steiner's Waldorf curriculum, which selects subjects to complement the child's own stage of development. At this age, topics sympathetic to teenage angst, such as civil wars and Shakespeare's Hamlet, are thought likely to engage the young people's attention and help them to learn and express their ideas more fully.

Mid-morning, Matthias and Gill meet for coffee at the house she shares with 10 of the school's pupils, eight co-workers and a married couple who have belonged to the community for 18 years. The living area is simply furnished, with polished wooden floors and a centrepiece stove. The house is bright and the bedrooms comfortable and pleasantly decorated.

The friendly, cosmopolitan atmosphere of each house reflects the eclectic mix of nationalities living in the community. Matthias, from Dresden, is one of 23 overseas students on the new course in curative education, which is being pioneered by Camphill in association with Northern College, while Gill is the only representative from the UK.

Ironically, the Camphill philosophy is probably better known overseas than in the country where it was founded more than 50 years ago by Austrian exile and visionary educationist Dr Karl Konig. He and a group of followers settled in Aberdeen after the war and put into practice their own methodology, based on the principles of the philosopher, educator and scientist Rudolph Steiner, who believed in the importance of looking behind disability and discovering and learning from the unimpaired soul. Today there are more than 40 Camphill communities in the UK and Ireland, and they can be found in 15 other countries.

Matthias, 25, says he has always been aware of Camphill's existence, but Gill, also 25, learned about it by chance when considering options for her year out prior to taking the postgraduate certificate in education. Inspired by the holistic principles of curative education, which focus on the provision of care, education and therapy for children with special needs, she has found her vocation.

"I always planned to specialise in special needs education within the national curriculum. But having experienced Camphill, I've discovered the full benefits of living and working with the children and would like to continue, perhaps specialising in music therapy in my third year,'' she says.

For Matthias, the journey to Camphill began with a sudden change of career. His country's community service requirement - an alternative to national service - led him to work with adults with special needs.

"I didn't want to go into the army, and here was my chance to experience something completely different. I really enjoyed the work and decided to build on it by applying to Camphill in the UK. When I first came here 30 months ago, I was working with special needs young adults in the Newton Dee Camphill Community, but then I became involved with the school and realised I wanted to teach."

Living and working with the children brings its share of challenges for the students who - with two rest hours in the day, one day off a week, and four short holiday periods per year - have very little privacy.

"The first few months can be stressful, both for the newcomer and for the children and the rest of the community,'' admits Matthias. "We have to get to know and feel comfortable with each other, no matter what kind of mood we're in. There's nowhere to hide - you have to be yourself - and that's one of the most important aspects of the whole experience.

"Only by being yourself and allowing the children to be themselves, can we begin to fully understand each other and develop as individuals."

After a trial year at Camphill, to decide whether the students and the community are compatible, Matthias and Gill were accepted for Camphill's own internally-validated curative education course. This has been delivered for many years in its communities throughout the world, along with courses in youth guidance, mental health, nursing and working with adults.

Soon after they started, however, it was decided that the course would benefit from external validation and input, and the school's long association with Northern College was further developed with the launch of a jointly-planned and delivered diploma in curative education, which offers students the opportunity to proceed on to a BA.

Northern College's Pat Millar, the link co-ordinator and group tutor for the course, explains: "We have had strong links with Camphill for many years, with joint staff development initiatives, and some of their teachers becoming involved in our postgraduate certificate in special needs and mainstream teaching courses.

"This new course has been designed specifically for those involved in the holistic approach promoted by curative education.

"At the moment, due to its residential requirement, the course involves only Camphill students, but we are hoping soon to offer selected modules to a wider range of professionals, including mainstream teachers.'' Gill Shuttleworth says: "It's great that the course has finally been recognised, as curative education has been around for years. Working with Northern College gives us a chance to find out about mainstream approaches to special educational needs, as well as Steiner's."

Their free hour over, Matthias and Gill return to school. It's time for Gill's form drawing and movement session, which helps lay the foundations for better co-ordination and basic writing skills. To the nursery-rhyme rhythm of Lewis Caroll's Lobster Quadrille, she "form walks'' with each child in her small group, helping them time their steps to the beat. In time, this straight-line walk will develop into more sophisticated circles and figures-of-eight.

The children, each of whom has profound co-ordination difficulties, respond well to her gentle encouragement, and seem particularly to enjoy the "wet sponge'' exercise of wiping the blackboard from left to right.

The session takes them through to lunch, a lively affair which takes place in their houses with their group and house parents. There is a lot of laughter and experience-swapping about the morning's events, and plans for afternoon activities, which may involve therapy, gardening, swimming or, for some of the older children, more school lessons.

Festive occasions, too, are celebrated together in this way, helping to forge ever more strongly the bonds of what for Gill, Matthias and all the children and adults in their community, is a rare and special relationship.


Delivery of the course is shared by teachers from Camphill and Northern College, with teaching and tutorial support taking place at Camphill. The students visit Northern College for certain classes and use its resources, including the library.

During their first year, students focus on meeting the care and educational needs of the children in their home life.

This involves being responsible for two or three children's personal hygiene, care of their immediate environment, skills training, leisure and educational guidance, under the supervision of the house parent - responsibilities which are carried on throughout the course.

In their second year, the focus is on education and school life, and students assist the class teachers and learn to prepare formal lessons.

In third year, they practise a specific therapy under the guidance of a therapist, and the degree year focuses on research, with the students studying an area which contributes to curative education.

"It's very much a two-way learning process. The students are exposed to a wide range of special needs and mainstream teaching approaches, as well as Information Technology and library resources, which they may otherwise not have had access to, and we as tutors are learning from their unique experiences as members of a Camphill community," says Northern College's Pat Millar.

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