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Team with a learning lifeline

Dawn Norris explains how a local family of schools is funding SEN support

A collaboratively funded project that does not immediately benefit all participants must be unusual. Such is the Wigston Family of Schools special educational needs project which was set up to provide extra help for children in Wigston primary and high schools.

The project grew from ideas discussed at the Family of Schools Development Group in 1992, when local management of schools and changes in funding had meant that access to free special needs and literacy support services from the LEA was no longer available. Individual primary schools felt they could not afford to buy enough extra help. So funding to appoint the equivalent of two full-time teachers was shared on a pro-rata basis between Guthlaxton Community College, a 14-19 upper school in the Leicestershire system, two l0-14 high schools (Abington High School and Bushloe High School) and five Wigston Magna primary schools: The Meadow, Little Hill, Waterleys, Glenmere and Thythorn Field. Three teachers experienced in teaching children with learning difficulties began working in the primary schools from August 1993.

It says much for a commitment to the continuum of learning that the major contributors to the funding, the upper school and high schools, would not enjoy the benefits for a few years.

In January 1994 the project was extended to include South Wigston High School and three more primaries: Fairfield, Glen Hills and Parklands. Another full-time equivalent post was funded and three more special needs teachers were appointed to carry out the work.

Specific aims were to:

* provide early identification of learning difficulties * devise individual programmes of tuition in literacy * work in co-operation with class teachers * support schools in the development and implementation of a special needs policy * provide staff in-service training on issues related to special needs * establish a commonality of approach to assessment, teaching and record keeping.

Initially targeted were the 18 per cent of children experiencing difficulties at key stage 2 but unlikely to be formally assessed under the 1981 Education Act. Since the inception of the project, special needs legislation has moved on and the advent of the SEN Code of Practice has tended to extend the scope of the work rather than reduce.

Members of the team work within the guidelines laid down by the Code of Practice and from time to time contribute to the various stages of assessment, including stage 4 referral to the LEA and Appendix D reports. For most of the time, they work with children at assessment stage 2. All teachers working in the project use a common assessment form and standardised tests.

While all teachers are teachers of children with special needs, some colleagues are more knowledgeable and confident in this area than others. A small specialist force, albeit with limited time in each school, can act as a consultancy, a source of expertise and a catalyst for change. However, in the front line remain the class teachers and co-operation with them is very important. It is essential that they know what is happening in the extra support lessons and are able to follow up and reinforce the programmes of work. Liaison with each school's SENCO is vital for the development of individual education plans.

Time is made for parents to discuss their child's progress and the programme of work being followed. Parents are encouraged to view the development of their child's literacy as an active partnership.

Fortnightly meetings of the six project teachers provide a forum for developing assessment strategies; teaching methods; use of resources; sharing of Inset and discussion of problems, successes and failures. In the past year the team has produced reading advice cards which can be sent home with a child's reading book. The readability level of maths texts and worksheets has also been looked at and members have also had In-set on spelling.

Several meetings are held each year with the special needs heads of departments to share information about the project and about individual children, thus easing the transfer between phases of education to avoid the "fading out" of project input from primary level.

During the first year of the project 268 children were assessed and 228 received tuition in various aspects of literacy. Tuition was usually for two 20 to 30-minute sessions per week, either individually or in a small group. All the children who received extra help made progress in reading and spelling; 75 per cent made more than l0 months' progress in reading between September and the following June and 50 per cent more than six months' progress in spelling during the same period. During the second year of the project, 300 children were assessed and 232 received extra help. Once again, progress made by the children was encouraging: 75 per cent made more than seven months' progress in reading and 64 per cent made more than seven months' progress in spelling during a 10-month period.

What cannot be measured is the increase in self-esteem. High-school teachers report that the children at transfer were confident and well motivated in spite of their learning difficulties.

The Wigston Family of Schools SEN project has proved a learning lifeline for many children who would not have been eligible for any other support. It continues to provide an excellent example of inter-school co-operation at a time when many schools are focused inwards to maintain staff and balance budgets.

Dawn Norris works as a special needs teacher in the Wigston Family of Schools SEN project

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