A special school has been busy building links with the mainsteam sector, reports Martin Whittaker
Name: Ellesmere college, Leicester
School type:11 to 19 special school
Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 40 per cent
Results: In 2004, 86 per cent of pupils achieved at least one entry-level qualification
Ellesmere college prides itself on being a good, inclusive school. But through its work with partner schools in Leicester, it is turning the traditional notion of inclusion on its head.
The term is usually associated with mainstream schools that widen access for children with disabilities or learning difficulties. But Ellesmere is a special school which is opening its doors to more able children who are struggling in mainstream education.
And through strong links with partner schools, its own students can now move between the college and mainstream schools to take GCSEs, or to whichever environment suits their educational needs.
"The model we are promoting is a continuum provision," says vice-principal David Thomas. "We have mainstream education, schools with additional resources, units for children with particular disabilities and special schools.
"We would never say that any child goes into one of those pigeon-holes and stays there for the whole of their educational career.
"We have sent students out to mainstream schools and they have come back to us. There's much more flexibility now - they are moving between the two."
Ellesmere college caters for pupils aged 11 to 19 with moderate learning difficulties. The college opened a decade ago on Leicester's deprived Braunstone estate during a reorganisation of the area's special schools. It has 250 students from throughout the city and county and around 40 per cent are eligible for free school meals.
In its last Office for Standards in Education inspection in June 2002, it was described as a very good school with a number of excellent features.
Leadership was described as inspirational, teaching very good, while students make very good progress.
The college appeared in the subsequent HMI list of outstanding schools and was designated a Leading Edge school two years ago.
One of its strengths has been its ethos of self-evaluation long before it became a buzz phrase.
"When we opened 10 years ago, we were under the spotlight to perform," says Mr Thomas.
"Special schools were being disbanded, so to do well we realised we had to be good, and you can only do that if you have robust systems of self-evaluation."
Under its Leading Edge status, the college has led a project using an inclusion Kitemark as a model for self-evaluation for itself and its partner schools.
It decided to use the Inclusion Quality Mark (IQM), a self-evaluation tool with 10 student-centred elements such as pupil progress, teaching and learning and parents and carers.
The thinking was is that if a school can fulfil all 10 requirements of the quality mark, then many of the basic assumptions and principles of self-evaluation would be in place.
Mr Thomas says the IQM allows schools to scratch beneath the surface, offering, for example, real feedback from parents and carers. And it has proved so successful that 30 Leicester primary and secondary schools are now involved. Ellesmere is working with them to help them achieve the quality standard over three years.
One of the schools, Sir Jonathan North, is going for all 10 elements of the mark in one year and could become the first school in the city to achieve IQM status.
Introducing the quality mark has brought unexpected benefits. Mr Thomas says that bringing mainstream and special schools closer together has enabled real partnerships to develop which have benefited not only children with special needs, but also those struggling in inner-city schools.
"We are getting more and more mainstream students who are not coping for all sorts of reasons in a mainstream secondary school, and they're coming to us for a short space of time," he says.
"Bullying is often a cause. All inner cities are difficult places to teach, and a lot of students who are academically poor suffer from bullying and name-calling."
Leading Edge funding has also allowed the college to employ three inclusion link assistants who support students through school transitions.
Another unexpected spin-off has been the growth of sporting links. The college is aiming for specialist sports college status next year, one of only a handful of special schools to do so.
Because it is now closer to mainstream schools, Ellesmere is working with their students on Speed, Agility and Quickness (SAQ) training, a technique used by top athletes, football and rugby clubs, and runs a Wednesday evening gym club.
The college is determined to give its own children every opportunity possible, both academically and vocationally. These include learning welding in its workshop to offering GCSEs in-house in art and maths.
And it offers all students the national curriculum and exams at entry level. Last year 86 per cent of students achieved at least one entry-level qualification.
Partnerships extend to sixth-form provision. The college's sixth-formers also have the chance to spend three days a week in FE at Leicester college.
Ellesmere is now halfway through its Leading Edge project and hopes to sustain it beyond its three-year funding.
As in many other local education authorities, it is taking place against the backdrop of special needs review. But Mr Thomas says the project has helped schools work together towards a better shared understanding of the term inclusion.
"As a special school, we should be the model for good inclusion," Mr Thomas says. "If we can't get it right, who can?"