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Regional winners

Michael Duffy talks to Julie Thwaites, teaching assistant of the year in the north of England

Julie Thwaites insists she's a very ordinary person. "There are lots of other teaching assistants," she says, "who are just like me." Well, perhaps there are, but that's not to say Julie isn't special.

She's a senior teaching assistant at Springwood primary school in Manchester, a "super special school", she says, which meets the needs of children with physical, behavioural and cognitive difficulties. The school is committed to inclusion; every child spends time in mainstream classes and many make a permanent move. Julie's job is to support the children and their mainstream teachers through the transition.

She helps set up placements, liaises with medical and psychological specialists and advises the LEA on what building modifications are needed.

"We have a wonderful support network, so have much to offer the mainstream school. Special needs children sometimes feel isolated; here their enthusiasm carries the programme along."

As an 18-year-old, Julie trained as a nursery nurse. She worked "all over Manchester" with mothers and toddlers, nurseries and playgroups. After taking a break while her children were small, she went back to do supply, this time in special schools. This introduced her, three years ago, to Springwood, a new school with "wonderful" facilities for 160 children.

There's a clinic on site, medical and therapy staff, as well as teachers, and "a marvellous head".

Sometimes she regrets she's not a qualified teacher, but there was "never time" to re-train. (As a single parent, she told her daughters to make sure they got their degrees while they're young - "and that's exactly what they've done, all three of them".) But if it's a regret, it's a tiny one.

She's proud to be working in her school with such a wonderful team.

Though she's "thrilled and surprised" that her work should have been recognised by the Teaching Awards, she's a tiny bit worried too. "I know everybody says it, but it really is a team achievement."

She has just one ambition. "I want to see the programme develop. I don't think inclusion is really resourced yet, in spite of all the high words we hear about it. So many children want desperately to be in mainstream education. They all say, 'Can I go, Miss?' I wish they could."

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