Preparation is key to full participation in extra-curricular activities when children have special needs. Phil Revell reports
It should have been Paul's first school trip. But when he went out to the coach with the others, his special needs helper was nowhere to be seen and none of the other children would sit with him. Paul was deeply upset. His day had been ruined.
Paul has Down's syndrome, but, in common with many children with the condition, he is able to live a normal life, including attending his local school in Oxfordshire.
Life for any child is a series of first experiences, but a child with Down's is particularly at risk from the bewilderment and stress that comes with new experiences. For Paul's parents and teachers the end-of-term special treat was another example of the difficulties in establishing a really inclusive education for those with special needs.
At Mencap, Lesley Campbell argues that Paul's experience underlines the need for schools to look at the way that children with special needs are integrated into the extra-curricular aspects of school life.
"This highlighted for me some of the limits of inclusion," she says.
Inside school provision for children with special needs is well mapped out. Learning plans, individual support, educational aids, access arrangements - these issues will have been addressed and it is accepted that most children can have an inclusive educational experience in a mainstream school.
But outside the school, on the day out, field trip or residential visit, children with special needs will require some special planning. For mainstream schools this should not involve any great problems.
"It's simply about preparation," says Elisabeth Andrews from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. "What's going to be available? Teachers could check the materials from the venue in advance; if there is amplification available they could prepare for it. There's often a case for a buddy system." The buddy system is borrowed from scuba diving - where divers always swim in pairs, one having responsibility for the other. In schools a special needs child can be buddied up with a partner who makes sure that everything is understood.
The choice of venue can be important. No one would imagine timetabling a wheelchair-bound student for lessons on the top floor of a building - yet teachers do not always check in advance that their chosen destination can actually accommodate their group.
At the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry there is full disabled access and the museum can arrange for trained signers. But museum officer Ros Weston still emphasises the importance of proper preparation.
"We run lessons and we can customise what we offer to the needs of the group," she says.
Last year the museum ran the extremely successful Dialogue in the Dark exhibition, where blind people guided sighted visitors through a blacked-out room full of everyday objects.
"That was very successful," says Ros. "But we have many interactive exhibits and an interactive gallery. This year's exhibition is Robotic Dinosaurs."
At Alton Towers the emphasis is again on the importance of the pre-visit contact. The theme park has won access awards, including, for two years running, the EASE award from Queen Elizabeth's Foundation for Disabled People and is proud of its arrangements for people with special needs.
"We've made every effort to ensure that Alton Towers is accessible to as many people as possible, regardless of any sensory of physical disability," says a spokesperson. One simple arrangement is to allow some children with special needs to queue-jump, both to prevent queuing problems and to allow safe loading.
On residential otrips the need to think ahead is even more important. A hearing-impaired child would not hear a fire alarm and sight impaired children are more likely to get lost in a strange en-vironment.
There are many specialist providers, but what about the mainstream group with one or two special needs children?
PGL is the industry leader in the school holidays market. "We look at it on a case by case basis," says director Martin Hudson. "We do get a lot of disabled young people coming with able-bodied groups. But we're not the experts on this, we don't have specialist staff. We would take advice and try to help."
In Shrewsbury, Drummond Outdoor has run canoeing courses for local special schools for many years and has no qualms about offering activities for children with special needs.
The Bowles Outdoor Centre in Tunbridge Wells actively welcomes children with special needs. The centre has outrigger skis and sit skis for wheelchair-bound skiers, a hoist for canoeists, and special facilities for abseiling. "The issue is more for the school," says centre manager Randall Williams. "The time and attention for the rest of the group could be restricted, but children get more out of these programmes alongside their peer group. It needs to be thought through."
The Calvert Trust is a specialist provider of activity holidays for children with special needs, with centres in Keswick and Exmoor.
Keswick manager John Crosbie says that Calvert is quite willing to accommodate mixed groups of disabled and able-bodied young people. He too is an advocate of "an integrated experience alongside their peers". What he is not prepared to do is accommodate a disabled young person while the rest of the group go adventuring elsewhere. Yet he is frequently requested to do just that. "It's unwitting discrimination," he says. "The group leaders haven't thought through what the experience is all about."
Education is specifically excluded from the Disability Discrimination Act, but service providers, like holiday companies, tour operators and day-trip venues, are not. Public services such as libraries and museums are included - whether they charge an admission fee or not.
The 1995 Act makes it an offence to refuse to serve a disabled customer, to offer a disabled person a lower standard of service or different contractual terms. A good example would be an amusement park which insisted that wheelchair-bound customers were kept from boarding a ride until last "because it would inconvenience other customers".
Alton Towers demonstrates what should be done here. The only acceptable discrimination is positive discrimination. Unfortunately the Act gives providers an escape clause. Less favourable treatment can be offered on four grounds:
* Health amp; Safety
* Where a disabled person is unable to understand a contract
* When it would make the provision of a service impossible
* When greater expense would be incurred in providing the service.
It was the final "get out" clause which infuriated disabled groups when the Act went through Parliament. But the law does give some protection to disabled people and by implication to teachers organising trips which would include young people with special needs.
However successfully the child is integrated into their mainstream experience there will always be some things that are missed.
For sight-impaired children this is often sport and the arts. The RNIB's vacation schemes are designed to fill that gap. "Whereas children in special schools have programmes tailor-made to their needs, their mainstream peers may miss out on social and recreational opportunities," says the RNIB's Angela Dinning.
"Our vacation schemes aim to give children who may be the only visually impaired student in their school the chance to meet and share experiences with other young people in a similar situation."
The charity runs schemes in three age groups in venues across the UK.
The schemes run for a week at a time throughout the summer and include Sport, Communication and the Arts, Outdoor Pursuits, and Technology.
The RNIB also offers in-service training courses for learning support assistants, both on general issues and on the specifics of assisting a visually impaired child on a school trip.
"Unless you have a support assistant who knows the problems," says Nicola Crews at the charity's training and education centre, "the blind or partially sighted child will get very little out of the trip."
RNIB Vacation Scheme: Costs pound;195 per person. Contact Angela Dinning, tel: 0113 274 8855
* Alton Towers produces a guide for disabled visitors which details which rides are restricted and which allow special arrangements.
Alton Towers theme park. Tel: 01538 702200.
* Drummond Outdoor. Canoeing and Climbing Courses for groups and individuals. Tel: 01743 365022
* Bowles Outdoor Centre. Tel: 01892 663888
* The Calvert Trust, Keswick tel: 017687 72254 or Barnstable tel: 01598 763221
* PGL tel: 01989 769011.
* Manchester Museum of Science amp; Industry tel: 0161 833 0027.
The Museum will run an INSET day for teachers on March 10 which will address some of the planning and preparation issues discussed in this article.
Cost pound;55 (free to teachers in the Manchester "buy in" arrangements).