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Walking into Norman Johnston's lab at Fulton Fleming School is like walking into a machine, a machine that ensures his students learn not just as well as other SEN students, but as well as any students. The Fulton Fleming School has a high reputation in Belfast for the work that it does with children with learning difficulties. Norman Johnston is one of its most remarkable teachers.

Before going to Fulton Fleming School Norman Johnston taught for 13 years in an inner city secondary school where he was head of biology. He moved to be head of science in Fleming Fulton Special School in 1988 and set about gaining access to public science examinations for pupils with special education needs.

The cliches about access to the curriculum have a reality in Norman's room. There is the specialist furniture, such as the five height-adjustable laboratory tables - each able to take up to three wheelchair pupils at a time - and mobile equipment cabinets alongside. Each table has a computer on an extendable rotating arm (with radio keyboards and mouse). All the computers and an interactive whiteboard are networked to printers and a CD-Rom server and the Internet. Practically all of these developments have been to Norman's design.

Students know where everything is and everything is within easy reach. The furniture is fitted to the students, the learning is tailored to the students and the worksheets are constantly rewritten for students to enable them to work at maximum capacity. Comments from pupils show that they value what Norman is doing. Norman's innovations give them a dignity where they are competing against other pupils.

Life is not easy for most of the students. The range of difficulties they have include learning difficulties, specific learning difficulties, emotional and behavioural difficulties, physical disabilities, sensory impairments with hearing difficulties, sensory impairments with visual difficulties, speech and language difficulties and various medical conditions.

The practical work that Norman did to improve the learning environment is particularly innovative. Not content with furniture that he could buy from catalogues, Norman designed new tables that can be raised and lowered. Another example is the development of clamps to ensure that spillages are lessened, also the design of the tabletop ensures that spillages will not affect the students. Health and safety is taken seriously but is not allowed to limit either what Norman does or what his pupils do.

Most impressive is the curriculum work. Norman has researched the CD scene and the Internet for work that will help his pupils. The use of text readers is well developed, as is the way that he uses scanners and magnified displays. Together with his technician, Norman has created a whole portfolio of worksheets that are tailored to key stage 3, GCSE and Certificate of Achievement - he uses one-word answer worksheets.

The work behind all of this is particularly impressive. Scanning of CCEA exams on to computers with linked text boxes inserted has enabled pupils to answer papers by typing direct into the computer and has been helpful in overcoming difficulties associated with the recording and sequencing of answers.

Autonomous learning is at the core of Norman's work. His headteacher remarked: "The role of a typical traditional science teacher has been left trailing in his wake as creative lessons are delivered using individual worksheets either on paper or on computers, which are completed either by hand or on computer depending on the disability and presented with the help of the Internet or interactive whiteboard."

Jack Kenny

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