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Mapping out a four-point survival plan

A governor of a special boarding school lists priorities for new recruits especially how to improve staff behaviour. Some pressure groups argue that all special schools should be closed. Even the Audit Commission has reported that pupils do no better in special schools than in mainstream schools, and they can be costly and ineffective.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many special schools feel beleaguered and misunderstood.

But not all families think that their children would do well in mainstream schools, and not all pupils thrive in them. Special school governors need to give the schools all the care and support that they can, while insisting on high standards of education, achievement and care for all pupils.

I became a governor of a special boarding school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. But my arm had to be twisted: no one else was prepared to fill the vacancy.

It was difficult to discover the school's aims and values and what it was teaching. There was no school brochure nor had there ever been an annual report to parents. The school had no curriculum policy - not unusual for a special school at the time.

Curriculum planning, based on the national curriculum, should now be happening in all special schools and there should be a range of curriculum policy documents for new governors to see. Governors can learn more by concentrating on a particular area of the curriculum when they visit the school, and then asking the teacher responsible for a curriculum area to make a presentation to the governing body.

At my school it took months of negotiation before the staff made their first presentation to governors. But once the barrier had been broken, staff and governors both saw the benefits. This led the way to a school development plan encompassing all areas of the life and work of the school.

Special schools catering for secondary age pupils also need an examination policy. There are increasingly a large number of certificated courses suitable for special school pupils, especially NVQs. Many special school teachers are opposed to their pupils taking externally recognised courses because they say it could be one more failure for them.

But carefully chosen courses and excellent teaching can bring real success for pupils who have achieved no recognised success before. I can still remember the look of sheer delight on everyone's face when a pupil was being presented with a certificate for the first public examination ever taken in the school. This success can spur pupils, families and teachers to aim much higher.

In a special school, particularly a boarding school where there will often be more staff than students, it can be extremely difficult for governors to get to know the staff. I visited the school as often as possible (within the constraints of my own job), eating with the staff and students, and becoming involved in their activities.

The staff soon started to talk to me about their hopes and aspirations and I was better informed at governors' meetings when we were discussing training and development needs, staffing structures and so on.

The third vitally important area is care and behaviour management. I quickly became concerned at the way staff behaved towards pupils, towards each other and how pupils behaved amongst themselves. If the staff thought that what I saw was acceptable, what ever was going on that I could not see?

When we appointed a new head, the first priority was to tackle behaviour management. It soon became apparent that a lot of unacceptable things were going on. Some of it required disciplinary action against staff, and some of it warranted the police and social services being called in.

This had been going on for years. New staff had either accepted this behaviour as normal or they had left in disgust. No one had blown the whistle.

My experience, and evidence from other special schools, suggests that in a minority of cases staff can develop completely inappropriate behaviour management systems. Some appear to lose respect for their pupils and treat them in a way that can best be described as Dickensian.

The only safeguard is to have behaviour and child care policies which have been drawn up, openly discussed, and agreed by all staff, governors, parents and pupils. Local education authority staff or good consultants can help by bringing a wider perspective.

Everyone, including new staff, should know the ground rules and everyone should know what to do when the policies are not being followed.

If governors have any concerns about the care of the pupils, the first step is to talk to the head. Often there will be a perfectly acceptable explanation. But if there is not, the governors must bring in the local authority or, in a grant-maintained school, appropriate experts, without delay.

Finance is the other main area of responsibility for governors. Compared to managing pupils' learning and care, finance can be a relief. Proper computerised financial information systems, and staff who are willing to learn, are essential. Most schools sensibly err on the careful side when they take over their budgets. When the school gets more secure in its costings it can start to be creative and look at how premises are being used and staff deployed.

Large savings can sometimes be made in staffing. When they analyse staff hours, gradings and deployment, schools often find that anomalies have crept into the system and, provided staff are fully consulted and involved, changes can benefit everyone.

In my own school, money saved on domestic staff was spent on classroom assistants, and money earned through lettings was spent on providing extra activities for the pupils.

Children in special schools deserve the best informed, most energetic and most influential governors. If you are not already a governor of a special school, and are offered the chance, jump at it. You will learn a lot, and you will have the opportunity to work hard for a school that really needs your dedication.

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