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Every child has its special needs

All children have their problems, and talents too: schools need a positive approach to SEN pupils, writes Sean McPartlin.

Education abounds with apocryphal tales and I'd like to think that the following story, recounted to me at the end of last term, could be treated as such. It concerns a school in Scotland and its provisions for special needs pupils.

The school reckoned it had achieved integration by identifying a hut in the playground which was to be a unit for these "special" children. Arrangements were made for them to attend the local special school for sports, as the mainstream school's facilities weren't suitable. They had their own separate entrance to the school grounds and to make them feel welcome, a special badge had been designed for these pupils, by the mainstream pupils, of course.

True or not, it is an approach that illustrates well the distance between a sound-bite initiative and the practicalities involved in enacting a major policy.

The integration of pupils who would formerly have attended schools outwith mainstream provision can never be a simple process and the difficulties go to the heart of what we consider to be education's most important mission.

My school's aims, as for many schools, are based on the premise that every child is special and the uniqueness of the individual surely informs virtually every school development plan.

In my school we work hard at putting our aspirations into practice. Looking at each child's needs, and each parent's expectations, and seeking to meet them, as far as is possible in a school of 1,000 pupils, is a central part of the school's commitment to the community we serve. But there also has to be the professional detachment necessary to recognise that there will always be young people for whom mainstream provision is not appropriate and the resolve to face up to this fact.

In addressing the needs of pupils coming to us from "special" schools, we look at their history, background and social, physical and academic requirements, as we would with any of our pupils. Treating all pupils equally does not mean treating them the same. It means adjusting the curricular, social or physical components of their education so that they all have the same opportunities to fulfil their potential. This requires a painstaking and detailed assessment of needs that can only be successful if carried out by a partnership of the school staff, parents, pupils and the local authority.

Our preparations have covered many hours of meetings and the building up of trust between parents and school staff o that all are clear about what can realistically be delivered. The parents have been heavily involved in every decision made in terms of their child's educational provision. They know what they want for their child and why. In turn, we have listened and, with the local authority, sought to provide it.

An early discovery was the need not just for support of special needs pupils in a new and bigger environment, but also for positive personal development of self-esteem and confidence. These are pupils, and parents, who can see the advantages of being schooled in a mainstream setting; despite the challenge - which is huge in some cases - they are keen to take advantage of increased possibilities.

We realised that the pupils coming to us had well established skills in creative and aesthetic areas. Their abilities in art, drama and music mitigate against any sense of disadvantage which might be present in some other subjects. An arrangement which could boost their involvement in these curricular areas would be of enormous value, and not just to the incoming pupils. There were existing pupils whose development would be progressed if we could add to the good provision in these subjects.

If physical alterations to the school buildings and the presence of extra classroom assistance were outward signs of the adjustments to be made, then these enhanced curricular arrangements would be a less obvious response to internal needs, to help build the feelings of accomplishment, self-worth and ability that encourage young people towards their potential. We are now looking towards innovative means of providing such a programme.

The exciting thing about this project is that it is not a bolted-on extra, but a development of the type of thinking which is increasingly common in all our schools: a bottom-up "can do" philosophy of looking at the needs of the pupils and seeing how they can be met. It represents true integration for all pupils, be their needs "special" or otherwise.

Top-down national initiatives tend to get a lot of attention but there are minor advances being made all over Scotland, often inspired by classroom teachers with a feel for their pupils' needs.

As well as adequate resourcing, the flexibility required for such innovation indicates the need for critical self-assessment and an openness to regular review. If the Scottish Executive is doing the same, we, and the pupils and their families, can be confident of success.

Sean McPartlin writes in a personal capacity. He is assistant headteacher of St Margaret's Academy, Livingston

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