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A future shared

Teenagers from the mainstream are befriending special school pupils to help them formulate a vision of their lives, writes Carolyn O'Grady

For some months now, 13-year-old Katie Hartland from Fox Hollies, a special school in Birmingham, has been meeting her friend Kerry Ann Dalton from Queensbridge, a mainstream secondary in the same city.

They have been looking at topics that teenagers usually enjoy - friends, family, pets, clothes, music. But one particular focus for the children has been the future - how they see their lives in the coming years.

The girls are part of the Trans-active project, which seeks to explore a difficult question: how to help pupils with learning difficulties explore their future?

The scheme matches young people from special schools with others of the same age - all are around 13 - from local mainstream schools. The pairs meet regularly to take part in a range of activities.

"It's about the transition into adulthood and making choices about education, living arrangements and leisure pursuits," says Claire Brown, the project manager.

"Mixing with mainstream peers helps to open up their choices - they get the chance to see the bigger picture and to aim a little higher than they might otherwise have done."

At the heart of the project are some computerised "templates" which the children make from photos, drawings or downloaded images. One template, for instance, deals with the issue of help - when children want assistance and when they don't, a sensitive issue for special needs children because they can often feel patronised.

The peer support project is organised by Mencap, the learning disability charity, and is currently being piloted in four schools across Birmingham and three in Lichfield, Staffordshire. The participant pairs meet about once every half term, and each week two Mencap staff go into the schools to discuss issues with all the partners.

The issue of control tends to present particular difficulties. The staff at Fox Hollies are anxious to establish a balance in which students can learn how to share and how to ask for help - but also to resist being domineered at the same time.

As one peer supporter says of her very strong-willed partner: "She can be very bossy." Katie, on the other hand, tends to "say yes to everything", according to Kerry Ann. "I have to work hard to bring her out, "she says.

Jermaine Hamilton, another peer supporter at the school, says he is very pleased with the way the project is developing: "I'm coming to understand how hard it is for them to learn. It has helped me to understand how some people discriminate against other people - and I've also learnt to communicate through signing and pictures." Like many other peer supporters, Jermaine has been learning how to use the sign language Makaton.

Recently, Jermaine has been involved in a photography project with his friend Nicky Hodges, from Fox Hollies.They have made a series of time-lines together - they show pictures of people at different stages of life, from babyhood to old age.

Next year, the project organisers are planning to publish a resource pack which will help schools to put together similar projects for themselves. In the meantime, Queensbridge and Fox Hollies plan to continue the project "indefinitely", according to Paul Roberts, deputy head at Fox Hollies.

He says the project has offered an important testing ground for the two schools because next year Fox Hollies will share a site with Queensbridge. It will take his pupils a step further towards inclusion. In the meantime, they are making welcome new friends.

See the Trans-active website at www.trans-active.org.uk

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