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No standing still

There's a family feel to this special school where everyone, from head to dinner ladies, is encouraged to better themselves, writes Alison Shepherd

When Costa Costa was 13 he was excluded from school as his emotional and behavioural difficulties became so great that not even his special school could cope. Now, 20 years later, he is back in a special school. But this time he is helping children with complex physical and learning needs - as both a teaching assistant and an unqualified dance instructor.

The extraordinary thing about Costa's story is that at Swiss Cottage school in north London, he is not that extraordinary; several of the 70 staff have a similar tale to tell. There's Joe West, who now helps Camden council to run training programmes for primary PE, after joining the school in 1998 as a teaching assistant. And there's Helen O'Sullivan, who has been with the school, and its predecessor, for 25 years, the first 10 as a dinner lady. Now, as a teaching assistant, she is an integral part of the upper primary and lower secondary teaching team.

And the close-knit team at Swiss Cottage have just one woman to thank for their success: Kay Bedford, the head.

"She is just brilliant," says Costa.

And Joe agrees: "She spots potential in people long before they even know it is there themselves," he says.

Helen adds: "When I left school at 15, I never imagined I could be doing so much, and looking to do more - and most of it is down to Kay."

Kay (everyone, pupils as well as staff, is on first name terms) joined the school in 1995 as the first head of a newly merged special school catering for children aged 2-16 that comprise the whole gamut of complex special needs. Since that time, she has developed a thorough programme of training, which misses none of her staff and which has created a team that positively buzzes with enthusiasm and energy. It has also brought glowing Ofsted reports and beacon status to the school.

"People are told right from the start what is expected of them. Some people do not like the ethos and we encourage them to move on," says Ms Bedford.

"Nobody stands still here. There is always something to learn, to develop, that will have a positive impact on the lives of our children."

Teacher Louise Kumber is one new member of staff who is definitely in no hurry to move on. She is sure she has learnt more in the six months she has been at Swiss Cottage than in the previous six years that she taught in a mainstream primary school.

"It is absolutely amazing here," she says. "The planning for CPD is outstanding. All the staff are really supportive. I just love it."

It is not just the training, which follows the basic regime available to all schools: in-service days, twilight sessions, visiting trainers, residential courses and so on, that makes Swiss Cottage staff what they are, but also how they go about it. Each member of staff, not just teachers and teaching assistants, but administrators and the other professionals involved in the care of the children, are encouraged to attend any training they believe may be suitable. But before they attend sessions, they have a meeting with Kay, a deputy head or their head of department to discuss what they expect to gain from the training. Once the training is complete, staff have a second meeting to discuss whether their expectations were met, and how they plan to use their new knowledge to improve practice. And three months later there is another meeting to assess how this has been implemented and its effect on the school.

"These meetings ensure that the training is focused. People really want to show the school the benefits of what they have learnt. They know it is not just lip-service to the idea of training," says Ms Bedford.

The progamme is rigorous, but staff are encouraged to fill personal as well as whole-school needs. After completing the Certificate for Literacy and Numeracy Support Assistants with the other teaching assistants, Costa is now half way through a programme which will allow him to help run hydrotherapy sessions at the school as well as continue his dance teaching and classroom support.

"I could never have believed I could have achieved so much. But with the support of 'my family' here almost anything is possible."

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