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How the handicapped can be helped to swim in the mainstream

When the will is there, the seriously disabled canbe happily integrated into a normal school - to the benefit of everyone involved. Seven-year-old Duncan Steven looked supremely contented as he lounged on a bean bag during his "free-time" break at Liberton primary in Edinburgh. On either side sat two classmates: one reading a story out aloud while another gently stroked his cheek.

Duncan is blind, cannot speak, is epileptic, and, because he has severe cerebral palsy, cannot stand or sit unsupported. When he first came to Liberton at the age of five his intellectual capabilities were assessed at the level of a four-month-old baby. With such profound handicaps he is an unusual pupil to find in a mainstream school, but one who was clearly enjoying the companionship, touch and the gentle sounds of his classmates' voices.

Duncan attends a mainstream school because his mother believes it is right for him. This was not because of any stigma that might be attached to special schooling but simply because she could see that her son (who has two able-bodied siblings, including a twin brother, Kenneth) was at his best when he was with normal children.

Mrs Steven made her case to Lothian in the early 1990s, challenging the education department to show just how far it was prepared to go with its stated policy of integrating those with special needs. Duncan has been a test case, given the unprecedented level of individual resourcing he commands within a mainstream school.

When a place was made available for him at Liberton primary, ramps had to be installed and other alterations made to accommodate his wheelchair. Extra staff had to be hired, including a full-time nursery nurse. Classes had to be organised so that the one Duncan was allocated to would have just 12 children in it. An extra teacher had to be found to teach that class.

More than two years on, Mrs Steven can report that Lothian's efforts have been well worth it. Her expectations that Duncan would be a happier, more communicative child in mainstream education have been met. Beyond that, she has been delighted to find that his intellectual and motor skills have improved. "He has made a huge amount of progress," she said.

Headteacher Anne Kite, as well as acknowledging the benefits integration has bestowed on Duncan, can testify to the positive impact his presence has on his peers.

"He allows more able children to gain the experience of forming a caring and understanding relationship with someone more vulnerable than themselves, " she says. "It was important not just to provide a space in a classroom for Duncan; he needs appropriate learning experiences. The integration has to be meaningful."

Such integration does not come about by chance. "Any school attempting this level of integration need adequate levels of expert help and of resourcing, " Mrs Kite emphasises.

As well as all the physical adaptations and additional permanent staffing Duncan receives assistance from a multidisciplinary team of professionals, including a psychologist, a speech therapist and a physiotherapist. The team guides and supports day-to-day work in the classroom, meeting each term along with the teaching staff, a consultant paediatrician and Duncan's parents to discuss progress.

Mrs Kite points out that many others are involved. "Integration simply would not work without the will of the whole school community," she says, "especially the nursery nurse and the classroom teacher. They make the difference between success and failure of integration."

It is anticipated that Duncan will stay at Liberton until he reaches the end of primary school, but only if, Mrs Steven emphasises, it is to his advantage. "At the moment his needs are being met. If this changed I would not insist that he stays."

A change in the local political climate, or in the levels of resources the new Edinburgh authority can continue to put into integration, has given Mrs Steven some cause to fear that the decision on whether Duncan stays at Liberton might not be entirely her own. "I feel confident that my other two children will stay on to primary 7 (the final year) but there is always a niggle at the back of my mind about Duncan," Mrs Steven says.

Lothian has put Pounds 3.1 million into its budget this year to help achieve its philosophy of integrating special needs pupils into mainstream classes. That sum, however, has to stretch across the age range from nursery to secondary. The region says it believes that the new authorities "will also wish to support a policy which clearly enjoys the support of many parents".

Mrs Kite strikes an optimistic final note. Whatever the funding challenges, she says that there will always be a place for Duncan in Liberton primary.

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