Val Brown is known for her enthusiasm and the word "brilliant" figures a lot in her conversation. She is a deputy head in Monkseaton and became this year's Inclusion Primary winner in the Becta Awards. One of the judges described her as "committed and indefatigable" and it is probably her amazing energy which won her the award.
Val started her career in mainstream education, teaching French and PE, but as time went on she thought about working with pupils with special needs.
"I had worked as a volunteer when I was at school and really enjoyed it, so when a job came up in Sunderland in a school for children with learning difficulties, I grabbed it."
She had a career break to have children and then did some supply teaching in special schools. A short stint at Woodlawn school in Monkseaton convinced her that this was where she wanted to be. "Each day, it's a real challenge trying to meet their needs." Woodlawn has 85 children aged 2-16 who all have a wide range of physical disabilities but some also have sensory impairments and learning difficulties associated with their condition.
Val has spent 14 years at Woodlawn, apart from a two-year stint in Gateshead where she worked as a liaison teacher to get more management experience. "My role was to focus on the inclusion of pupils into mainstream and I had a very interesting case load. It is also where I took off with ICT and got involved in training adults for the first time."
During this time, Val received a lot of help from disability resources supplier ACE Centre North, so that she could assess children and find technology to meet their needs. This relationship continued when Val went back to Woodlawn because the school became the local CAP (Communication Aids Project) contact for North Tyneside, doing assessments for disabled charity AbilityNet and ACE Centre North. The multidisciplinary CAP team involves mainstream, special needs and advisory teachers, a physiotherapist, a speech and language therapist and they have just advertised for an occupational therapist.
"CAP is fabulous," said Val. "It has made a vast difference in the mainstream schools. If children receive CAP funding, they have their own machines and supportive software. Best of all, they can use the kit day after day, instead of on a rota basis. It also means they can take equipment home and use it at weekends and during the holidays."
When it comes to technology, Val will turn her hand to anything which can benefit the pupils. She set up a digital video project in the school and in fact Woodlawn was the only special school to take part in an LEA digital video conference. "I think digital video can be a brilliant assessment tool and a great way of recording and reporting progress. So often a child has to do a self-assessment and we revert to pencil and paper. Yet all our teaching tries to get away from this medium and to find tools which are more stimulating. Now, with digital video, the child can film what he has done and make a CD-Rom which has a digital record of achievement."
Woodlawn has recently started an after-school computer club. Obviously this is a problem in a school where nearly all the children are collected and delivered by bus and where transport arrangements dominate the day.
However, with funding from the Children's University, the school has been able to cover transport costs and to pay for extra staffing. The children have been working with Microsoft Publisher, looking at different creative activities, and are now moving on to make music on ESP's Compose World.
"We've not been able to do everything we want," said Val. "I want to develop links with Northumbria Police Child Protection Team to look at how ICT can be used to help disabled children who have been abused. I am sure pictorial symbols have a lot to offer in this area and can help to break down the barriers but we'll have to wait and see." Given Val's persistence, we won't have to wait very long.
* Teaching tips
* Inclusion means making sure that pupils can communicate, participate and be fully involved in all aspects of the school curriculum. Recognise and celebrate achievement. We have high expectations of our pupils and our staff and we make sure we mark our successes
* Be hands on. Even if you have a management role, you have to be in the classroom seeing what works
* Assessment is crucial and you need to have a motivated multidisciplinary team to work out exactly what the child needs. That means making sure there is appropriate input from professionals who visit the school, such as physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and staff from the service for visually impaired pupils. Everyone needs to contribute
* If you want to improve teaching and learning, buy the best hardware and software and get broadband connections. Choose technology carefully. It has to meet the needs of the school and of the individual pupil too
* Staff from special schools have lots of skills and expertise which can be harnessed to support mainstream schools. Don't be inward looking; see if you can forge new alliances and offer a better service to pupils Websites
* www.cricksoft.com A wealth of grids to use in the classroom
* www.priorywoods.middlesbrough.sch.uk Teaching tips, useful links and ICT checklists
Up-to-date information about the project and how it is working around the country
* www.gridclub.com Games, jokes and loads of activities
An excellent source of ideas and product information