Made for each other

Campaigners have long demanded that 'mainstream' schools make better provision for severely disabled children. From this month, changes to the law will add muscle to their arguments. It isn't cheap and it isn't easy, but one infant school in north London shows that it can be done. Nicholas Pyke reports

Beyond the large, brightly coloured art display for the golden jubilee, there is little to distract a first-time visitor to Coteford infant school. There are more adults than you would expect; there are no steps or stairs in the building; and perhaps the groups of small children in the corridor are walking rather slowly. This is because, moving along with them, are up to a dozen pupils with walking frames and wheelchairs.

Coteford is near Harrow on the edge of north-west London but belongs to the borough of Hillingdon. Officially, it is a "mainstream" infant school. It has good key stage 1 test results, is popular with parents and has doubled its roll over the past 10 years. It also takes disabled children such as six-year-old Rhys Mallet whose spinal muscular atrophy has left him so weak he flops about like a rag doll without a wheelchair to support him. Every class at Coteford has one or two children with a serious disability and, like Rhys, they take part in all activities from circle time to sports day.

This month sees the introduction of a new code of practice in schools, which parents and disability campaigners hope will give many more children like Rhys the chance of an education alongside their able-bodied peers in mainstream classrooms. It is the product of amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 applying the legislation to schools, colleges and universities. As a result, schools "may be held liable" if they treat disabled children unfairly, whether the discrimination occurs in lessons, in the admissions procedure, or even on school trips. Headteachers and governors are obliged to make "reasonable" adjustments to include disabled children.

Coteford has spent years ensuring that disabled children play a full part in school life, as has Coteford junior next door. "The other children don't bat an eyelid at Rhys," says his father, David. "He's part and parcel of the everyday activity." Rhys has plenty of able-bodied friends who love to hitch rides on his wheelchair, particularly the hi-tech one he usually leaves at home. And because the school currently has eight disabled children out of 260 (although this can rise to a dozen or more), none is seen as a curiosity.

Headteacher Julia Thomas is in no doubt that having disabled pupils improves the atmosphere. "Where people are kind to each other it rubs off," she says. "There's little name-calling."

Mrs Thomas came to the school 10 years ago, attracted by its work with physically impaired children. "It's very rewarding. I get satisfaction that I wouldn't get in other schools. I see children take their first steps before their parents do. I hope, as a result of the code of practice, that other schools see the pleasure in having a variety of children. It's a pleasure and a privilege. We get from them as much as they give to us."

Certainly she has no problem attracting or keeping staff.

Of course, looking after so many pupils with extra needs involves fundamental adjustments to buildings and furniture, and the staffing ratio is high. But some of the changes are more subtle. When classes walk to assembly or the dining hall, they do so at the pace of the slowest child. If you take a second look at the wooden climbing frame in the playground, you'll see a low-level ramp running through it so wheelchairs can get in and out. The floor is especially clean, important if you have children shuffling around the classroom on their bottoms. And the heating bill is higher than average.

Some ingenuity is needed, too. The teachers have to make sure that children with few physical skills have something to do in PE, even if it is no more than handling a ball or beanbag. Last term's sports day was a model of full participation: there were no special races for the disabled. Instead, wheelchair users went head-to-head with the runners and walkers. "You can bring even the most disabled child into a games lesson," says Mrs Thomas. "Gym is sometimes more difficult. There's no way that some of them will climb or jump. But we can try to co-ordinate it with physiotherapy. If you think about it, there are some simple things you can do to give children access."

Beyond the day-to-day practicalities lies what the school identifies as most crucial - an open, willing attitude. "It's not all about money," says Mrs Thomas. "The most important part is wanting the children in school. There are lots of steps you can take that aren't expensive but which help children with poor control, such as using felt tip pens instead of crayons, or providing better quality drawing paper. If a child needs a special writing slope, try an A4 ring binder."

Having a core group of pupils with such obvious differences means the teachers have learned to talk frankly to the children. There is no room for skirting or ignoring the fact that their classmates are in wheelchairs. "We have had children who are quite disfigured. The others want to know why," she says. "Sometimes you might have to take children aside and talk to them separately. You have to explain that this is just what they're like."

So, if Coteford infant school can do it, why are others apparently unable to see the advantages integration can bring? Campaigning organisations such as Scope (formerly the Spastics Society) hope the new code of practice will bring a change of attitude and that headteachers and governors will be prompted to apply for "access" funds - grants for training and building modifications from the Department for Education and Skills. The code means that, for the first time, schools will be obliged to consider the possibility of taking on disabled children, and draw up a plan for doing so.

But if Coteford sums up the positive side of integration, it also casts light on some of the difficulties. The school is a resource for the whole borough - Rhys comes from six miles away - and is significantly better funded than average, receiving an additional pound;175,000 a year. Coteford has taken disabled children from the outset, so its buildings are all suitably adapted. It has also had plenty of cash for new facilities, such as the giant wash rooms or "sluice rooms" for dealing with incontinence, or the special hoist for lifting children out of wheelchairs. Disabled children, like all children, are getting heavier. And not only does Coteford have more staff; they are well trained and, in several cases, highly experienced.

"The local authority could never fund all its schools the same way it's funding me," says Mrs Thomas. "Also, by having a larger number of children we have an economy of scale."

The code of practice may eventually mean Coteford taking on children with more severe physical needs than at present, a change Mrs Thomas is happy to accept - with provisos. More severe forms of disability could pose a considerable challenge, she says. And so would any significant shift in the balance between able-bodied and impaired infants. At present, the school works well with one or two impaired children in each class. Mrs Thomas says: "We're lucky here because we have the best of both worlds."

The Code of Practice for Schools is published by the Disability Rights Commission. Copies can be obtained by ringing 08457 622 633, by writing to DRC Helpline, Freepost, MID 02164, Stratford upon Avon, CV37 9BR, or by logging on to www.drc-gb.org. Information about Scope can be found at www.scope.org.uk

ZAHRAH'S STAND

Preethi Manuel is one of the parents who has been campaigning for the new code of practice. Introduced this month, it will protect disabled pupils from discrimination and should allow a greater number to be educated in non-specialist schools.

Ms Manuel knows from a long personal battle how hard it is to obtain an ordinary school place for a disabled child, in this case a daughter with cerebral palsy. At one stage she decided to give up her job and sell her flat to educate and care for Zahrah at home (pictured together above).

Her campaign started when her local council, Camden in central London, refused to send Zahrah to a mainstream primary school, arguing that her needs were too severe. This was despite a ruling from the special needs tribunal in the family's favour. Only when disability activists occupied the council offices, accompanied by a BBC cameraman, did Camden change its mind.

According to Ms Manuel, a trained secondary school teacher and now a screenwriter, her daughter's time at an ordinary primary school was an unqualified success: "People who had fears turned around very rapidly and said what a positive change she had made to the classroom and to other children," she says.

But when Zahrah reached the age of 11, they found themselves back at square one. Whitefield secondary school in the north London borough of Barnet is specially funded and equipped to take disabled children. But the school refused to take Zahrah claiming, again, that her needs were too severe. This time Ms Manuel got as far as the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice before the school backed down, minutes before the case was up for judicial review.

The story has a happy ending. Hampstead school, which is much closer to where they live, saw the publicity and volunteered to take Zahrah if the local education authority agreed to help modify the building, which it did. And now, aged 14, she is settled.

Speaking during the recent Inclusion Now summer school at Nottingham University, her mother said: "I was sure that I wanted her to go into a mainstream environment. I wanted her to have an ordinary life, to be part of the community, to have local friends. I wanted her to mix with a range of people, not just those with the same impairment.

"It was not just an individual battle. One of the reasons we contended so long and hard was to ensure that the system would change. To make sure that other parents don't have to go through the same fight."

The Inclusion Now Summer School 2002 at Nottingham University was jointly run by Disability Equality in Education: 0207 359 2855; email: r.rieser@dieseed.org.uk. Alliance for Inclusive Education: www.allfie.org.uk. Parents for Inclusion: www.parentsforinclusion.org

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