Diana Hinds visits an inclusive campus where new opportunities are on offer to all pupils
In a spacious food technology room, Leonie, 15, is carefully spooning apricot jam over her tray of oatie mixture. Ricky, 16, has just put his in the oven and is calculating how long it will take to cook. Both students work confidently and purposefully. Both have severe learning difficulties, and this is their first lesson with students from a mainstream comprehensive.
Looking on, Alison Ewins, deputy head of Briarwood Special School, is delighted that this inclusion initiative is giving her students opportunities to use facilities they have never had before, as well as putting them in touch with mainstream students their own age.
"It's brilliant," she says. "They've never been able to be so independent before. It has definitely helped their confidence. They are now having an experience much more similar to their mainstream peers."
Twelve-year-old Jamie, in a wheelchair, is helping to make scones, and is in no doubt about the benefits of being part of this new school. "I like all the older children," he says with a beaming smile. "I like playing."
In 1994, at a world conference in Salamanca, 98 countries, including Britain, signed up to an agreement that children with special needs should, wherever possible, be educated in their local mainstream schools. Eight years down the line, Bristol local education authority has combined the senior department of Briarwood Special School with Whitefield Fishponds Community School, creating a new purpose-built block - the Briarfield Centre - attached to the main school.
Tony Letts, senior manager at Briarfield, hails the development as the first example of "colocational inclusion". Each school retains its own headteacher, staff and curriculum, but the close physical proximity helps to break down barriers between the two groups of pupils. Briarwood pupils gain access to a wider range of educational facilities - for example in technology, music and the expressive arts; Whitefield pupils have the chance to get to know people with special needs; and the two schools work together to find projects that pupils can collaborate on.
When Briarwood was built in 1978, for pupils with severe to profound and multiple learning difficulties, like many special schools of the time it was "tucked away, out of sight of the community", says Tony Letts. The design of Briarfield Centre, however, could not be more of a contrast. The work of award-winning architect Janet Scott, it is deliberately bold and eye-catching, inside and out, with vaulted ceilings, vibrant colours and sensitive lighting. As well as six airy classrooms, there are specialist facilities including a physiomulti-gym room, a sensory studio (which can be set up to give pupils the experience of being in a desert or rainforest), and a lavish hydrotherapy pool (still awaiting a powered hoist to get pupils in and out). "Bristol LEA has been totally committed to the project, and has supported us with plenty of hard cash," emphasises Tony Letts.
The two schools are joined by a shared reception area, and a newly installed lift makes it possible for all pupils to reach all floors of the main school. Whitefield has put in ramps and handrails, and new hygiene areas, and despite losing one of its football pitches, has gained a new City Learning Centre, still being built, which the two schools will share.
Before the Briarwood pupils moved in last September, pupils, parents and staff - of both schools - were apprehensive. On the Briarwood side, there were anxieties about boisterous, mainstream 16-year-olds and possible bullying, while Whitefield teachers felt unprepared for children with severe disabilities, and imagined they would have them constantly in their classrooms.
But the move was tactfully handled by both schools. "We went out of our way to reassure people that things would happen at a gentle pace," says Eileen Flynn, Whitefield inclusion co-ordinator. The result is that, although staff still talk in terms of "our side" and "your side", the two are gradually coming together, and a host of ideas for joint activities is slowly unfolding. Already there have been ventures in art and in sport, such as Whitefield pupils helping their Briarwood peers to ride on body-boards on wheels, and a mixed group is now planting up the new courtyard outside the centre. Whitefield pupils studying GNVQ health and social care have done simple physiotherapy exercises with Briarfield pupils, and there are plans to explore shared work in music.
More importantly, pupils from the two schools have begun to make friends.
Briarwood welcomes four Whitefield visitors to its playground every lunchtime, and already there is a three-week waiting list for this privilege.
Tess, a 16-year-old Whitefield student who has helped to produce One for All, a newsletter involving pupils, parents and staff from both schools, says the Briarfield Centre has changed Whitefield, but for the better.
"It's nice to get an insight into how the children at Briarwood learn, and the things they enjoy doing," she says. "Before they joined our school, I hadn't thought about a career working with children with special needs. But now I would definitely look into it."