Growing in independence

Wendy Wallace

John Smeaton Community High School in east Leeds has 14 pupils with Down's syndrome. Unusually, integration at this school began at grassroots level. A close relationship with a nearby special school culminated in a number of pupils transferring full-time.

Leeds has been delegating special educational needs budgets to schools since l992. Named schools are resourced for different categories of need and given a pump-priming amount to pay for sufficient staffing. The amount of support is specified on statements and translated into funding units passed on to schools. The Leeds system works well to promote integration - of the 3,500 children with statements, 2,500 are in mainstream schools.

But the success depends on some schools being resourced for particular kinds of needs by the local authority. "If it was entirely related to formula funding, schools wouldn't be able to sustain the provision," says Mike Robertshaw, assistant director for special education needs.

John Smeaton School is now resourced for pupils with severe learning difficulties and has 72 statemented pupils. Two "unit bases" - staffed classrooms - serve two clusters of special needs pupils, one group with severe learning difficulties and another with visual impairment. But children spend three-quarters of their time in mainstream lessons, particularly in the lower school.

What staff notice most about children who arrive from special schools is how rapidly they grow in independence. "Here they're expected to do so much more for themselves," says head Phil Willis. "Get their coats on, sort themselves out at dinnertime, get themselves to classrooms. We're very careful not to cushion the special children. They're here, and they've got to get on with it."

Staff point out that not only the "special" children but also the others stand to benefit from integration. "Pupils become more aware," says June Wilson, co-ordinator for severe learning difficulties at the school. "And the other special needs students realise that they can help these children, and that builds up self-esteem. It just becomes a way of life."

Fifteen-year-old Gareth Jones, one of the pupils with Down's syndrome, clearly holds his own socially in his maths set. "I love maths," he says. "It's my favourite." He's full of himself, jabbing at his non-teaching assistant with his forefinger, congratulating him on having had a shave, and crowing over his victory in the game they are playing of adding the numbers on playing cards (nearest to 30 wins).

Gareth is following the "amber" version of an SMP accredited maths course, based on levels two and three of the national curriculum, and is part of the fifth of five streamed sets for maths. How do other pupils relate to him? "The group get on quite well with him," says teacher Kathryn Lovatt. "When he first came, they thought 'oh, we really are the dim group'. But now they've realised he's doing his own thing. Sometimes what he's doing is more interesting than what they're doing."

In the last five minutes of the lesson, three other pupils spontaneously join the game.

"What you got there Gags? Twenty-eight?" The lesson ends and Gareth returns to the unit base to pick up his coat, chastising a younger pupil for wearing a red sports cap and reminding him that hats aren't allowed in school. He and other pupils put on their coats, call out goodbyes and swing off down the corridor to the taxis waiting in the car park. It feels - normal.

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