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An open door to another world

Student teachers on placement at a special school in St Helens need more than subject expertise. Carolyn O'Grady finds out why the school lets them in.

Penkford School for pupils with moderate learning difficulties in the metropolitan borough of St Helens has never feared being first.

It was one of few special schools to benefit from the Department of Education and Science's technology school initiative. The award of Pounds 171,000 enabled the school to build what is probably the best-equipped technology centre in a UK special school. Penkford now has a food technology room, computer suite and textile workshop of which any catering company or business would be proud.

It was also one of the first special schools to offer school experience placements to students at a local college. Last year, it took three students and this year it has taken five - all at secondary level - from Edge Hill University College in Ormskirk, West Lancashire.

When several newly qualified teachers were appointed the school saw that it might be in its interest to take school experience students, said Penkford's deputy head, David Hartley. "We were getting very good quality people and were so impressed that we felt it would be good for everyone if we worked with them as they trained." The first students were science and technology specialists but this year the school is taking mathematics specialists as well.

One of the advantages of working in a small special school (150 pupils, aged 4 to 17) was that students got a taste of every aspect of the school, he added: "In mainstream, if they went into, say, the science department they would only have experience of that department. In a special school, they have to have wider involvement. They might have to take kids to a football match or teach another subject, English or personal and social education, for example, and we can offer experience of primary teaching at the same time."

The downside for students, he admitted, was that the school lacked some of the facilities students would find in mainstream schools. "The lack of a specialist science room comes as a bit of a shock and the fact that we have no technicians."

From the school's point of view, the advantages were that the school received new ideas and approaches from the students; the scheme raised the school's status and that of special schools in general and improved the morale and status of staff. Penkford staff saw it as a learning process, he said. While being observed by students and acting as mentors, they were forced to think about what they were doing and became aware of what needed sharpening up - "of where they might have become a bit stale".

Student Jacqui Dunbavin is now on placement at Penkford. She had become interested in special needs pupils during her first placement in a mainstream comprehensive and had requested that her second placement be in a special-needs school.

"It's a wonderful atmosphere, but it's very different from a mainstream school, more like a primary junior school," she said. "It requires very different skills. There is much greater contact with pupils because I cover my own subject, science, and also English and PSE. You really feel you're treating pupils like a whole person."

Some first-year students had been perturbed about being sent to special needs schools, she said, "but I wanted to get as much varied experience as possible".

Simon Taylor, link tutor at Edge Hill, denied that pupils' concern about placement in special needs schools was anything more than initial placement nerves. Though some students might feel concerned at first about going to a special school once they had been on observation week, they usually came back "raring to go", he said. Those that had completed their placements felt they had got a great deal out of it.

Robert Foster, head of secondary partnerships at Edge Hill, said: "Special schools can offer particularly good experience in individualised learning programmes, small group work, as well as providing insights into the ways in which they help youngsters deal with disabilities.

"Students say it gives them a very good perspective on planning for learning. It helps them get a very good handle on looking at a learner's starting point and what that pupil needs to develop and progress."

Best practice was the college's criteria for choosing the school they worked with, he said, whether it be special needs or mainstream.

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