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Pupils I'll never forget

Ten-year-old Donna taught Yorkshire head Richard Hirst about coping with disability

More than 1,800 children have been through Filey junior school since I became head, but Donna stands out because her determination to succeed and her craving for independence were unforgettable.

Between 1986 and 1992 I was a full-time teaching head; Donna arrived into my Year 6 class in 1990 aged 10. She suffered from cerebral palsy and was the first seriously physically disabled child I had ever taught (I started teaching in 1967). She used crutches and had a really awkward gait and needed a lot of space to move around.

My most poignant memory of teaching Donna was after another child had made a thoughtless remark to her in the playground. I don't think the child was being bad but the remark obviously registered with Donna and she came straight in after break and asked me if she could stand in front of the class. She said to them: "You do not know what it is like being trapped in this body." The other children were spellbound, and listened hard.

The resilience and self-assurance she possessed were inspirational and, having taught Donna, I now feel I have a deeper understanding of the needs of children with disabilities. There are obvious practical things to do with modifications of buildings and creating access, co-ordinating teaching support and so on, but she taught me that a more intangible but equally important thing is to give a child the opportunity to talk to others about how they feel inside.

Since Donna we have had many children through the school with impairments or who have been seriously ill and I have encouraged them to talk to me or to others about their condition. We currently have another girl with cerebral palsy who has been through two difficult operations to improve her mobility and been so determined to see it through. She has wanted to talk about her progress and we have encouraged that; we have been willing her on.

Six years after leaving the junior school Donna came back on a work experience placement from college. It was really special having her around.

Richard Hirst, 58, has been head of Filey junior school, North Yorkshire, classed by Ofsted as an outstanding school, for the past 23 years. He was talking to Elaine Williams. Do you have special memories of unforgettable pupils? Write to Sarah Bayliss at the address on page 3 or email

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