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No more hiding on the special school bus

The most gratifying bonus of the support Carwarden House offers mainstream schools is that its own pupils now feel they can hold their heads high. Sue Jones tells an inspiring tale.

Despite the excitement of yesterday's visit by the Earl and Countess of Wessex, the school is back to its usual calm and purposeful atmosphere. The youngest children are sitting on the floor with number tapes learning the difference between "one more" and "one less". The next class is absorbed in written work. The walls are decorated with careful drawings of the royal visitors, although some have ears on the grand scale of the children's exuberant flower paintings inspired by the American artist Georgia O'Keefe.

The smell of a generously garlicky pizza drifts from one of the practical rooms as older children discuss their work-experience placements with the headteacher, John Cope. It all seems like a very well-run community school, albeit with small classes. Indeed, you have to look closely to realise that this is a special school where all the children have at least moderate learning difficulties.

In every class, there are pupils with such conditions as dyslexia, dyspraxia, serious eating disorders and cerebral palsy. Some also have emotional and behavioural difficulties. But Carwarden House school, Camberley, has been so successful in educating its pupils that it is now a beacon school at the centre of the community, disseminating its methods to more than 35 of its mainstream neighbours.

Ofsted praised pupils' real desire to learn, their willingness to discuss their work and their listening skills. Management and leadership were described as very good, and relations within the school as excellent.

Success has come through high expectations, assertive discipline and meticulous planning. Some of the pupils may never move through a whole national curriculum level, and all will make very slow progress compared with their mainstream counterparts, but progress will be made and demonstrated.

Every subject at every level is broken down into tiny progressive steps that headteacher John Cope describes as "a highly-honed system that meets the needs of each child". All pupils have their own individual education plans and each of their exercise books has a list of the next steps they need to take for that subject.

Like a Roman mosaic, a picture emerges from the hundreds of tiny pieces of achievement. Not surprisingly, Sue Cope, wife of John and Carwarden's beacon co-ordinator, dreads the "minefield" of national curriculum changes because they mean lots of documentation alterations.

The same principle applies to the home-working booklets, which are designed to be done with a parent or other adult. They include competitive maths games that not only develop numeracy skills but, by avoiding the stigma of looking like "special help", draw in siblings and help build family relationships. "It was just like an old-fashioned Sunday where everyone joins in," said one parent. The booklets were so successful that they are now published and used in nearly 700 schools throughout the country.

Other booklets support parents in helping their child to develop independence by providing a progressive, detailed structure of activities. A booklet on eating tells pupils how to eat only pureed food with a spoon and works up in small stages to ordering and paying for a meal in a restaurant.

But the popularity of the books with children and parents has created its own difficulties. Allocating the right book to the right child and tracking progress is such a meticulous task that it has become a full-time job for a learning support assistant.

This is not a system that can be transferred to mainstream schools, but Carwarden House has used its beacon funding to spread its expertise and help its neighbours in other ways. Starting six years ago as a pilot with two or three primary schools, it now works with 35 schools across the age range and has numerous visitors from outside the authority.

Sue Cope began by organising surgeries for teachers to consult an educational psychologist and other advisers. But she was surprised to discover that this was often their first contact with these experts; so frequently did heads keep contact with advisers to themselves or their special needs co-ordinators that she now requires them to sign a contract guaranteeing her access to any member of staff she thinks she should see.

It was crucial from the beginning to make sure that the advisory service was fully informed of what Carwarden House was doing, she explains. It was important to work with everybody and not to let them feel sidelined or undermined. Visits from partner schools were useful, but they became so frequent that it put too much strain on the staff, who felt as if they were working in a goldfish bowl. Although Sue Cope believes her work with other schools is about "opening doors and never shutting them", the visits had to be restricted and she now puts more emphasis on training and advice.

She organises monthly speakers and visits schools to advise teachers on specific problems. "You have to treat every school as individual, be very professional and build on their good practice," she says. The demand on her time has been so great that they are now considering devolving money from the beacon initiative to schools to buy in consultants that Carwarden knows and trusts. They also lend materials and equipment to schools which have children with specific needs.

The school's round of beacon funding runs out in 2004 when it will need to submit a new financial plan. Meanwhile, Surrey has been so impressed with the work that it is investing in "cloning" these outreach methods to special schools in other parts of the county.

Neighbouring schools have benefited from the outreach work, but so has Carwarden. Contacts between staff and students are so frequent that it has become part of the community. John Cope insists that it is a community school "because mainstream schools can call on us".

"The biggest benefit isn't tangible," he says. "There was a stigma attached to special schools; children would hide at the bus stop or duck down below the window on the special school bus." Although they were invited to attend concerts and plays at the secondary schools, they were too frightened to go. Now some of the older pupils do community work in infant schools, while others go to the secondary school to take GCSEs in subjects such as art and music.

"Our children are allowed to go and study subjects where they are strong," says Mr Cope. "We encourage them to be competitive, and mainstream children respect them. Our children are proud to come to school and it's all come from the outreach work."

Cawarden booklets are available from St Joseph's Workshops Ltd. 190-194 Bag Lane, Atherton, Manchester, M46 0JZ

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