A great wee school

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Once labelled a dumping ground for unwanted weans, Lochgelly North has been turned into a school that doesn't understand failure. Jonathan Croall reports

Until the early Eighties, when corporal punishment was abolished in Scottish schools, Lochgelly was best known as the place which manufactured the notorious instrument which gave pain to thousands, the tawse or belt. Now this small Fife town is in the spotlight for a very different reason. Among the 11 UK schools recently identified by the National Commission on Education as working effectively in the face of multiple disadvantage is Lochgelly North, a small special school for children with severe and profound learning difficulties, whose ethos is praised as "exceptional".

Lochgelly is the only special school (and the only school in Scotland) to be featured in the NCE report Success Against the Odds. "The school will never appear in exam league tables," the visiting researchers noted. "But if there were such measures for staff dedication and parental support and satisfaction, it would rank among the best in the UK."

Here, in an outwardly nondescript one-storey building stuck next to a Sixties council estate on the edge of this former mining town, 18 children aged 2 to 19, who not long ago would have been seen as ineducable, are being helped to cope with the demands of ordinary life.

While all the children have severe learning difficulties, most also have a physical disability: 10 have severe motor and mobility problems, and three cannot walk. There are children with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and Down's syndrome. In addition half have emotional and behavioural difficulties, and of these, two are autistic.

Parents are unanimous in their praise of their children's teachers. "It's a great wee school," says Lyn McGachan, whose four-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy. "The teachers always have the children's best interest at heart, and Sarah has really come on since she's been there." Others speak highly of the staff's friendliness, skill and commitment.

Ten years ago feelings were very different. The school, then run by instructors rather than teachers, was seen as little more than a child-minding service. The regime was punitive and custodial, and parents played no part in it. "You put your kid in, and they were forgotten about," one parent remembers.

How has such a dramatic change come about? Why are children once shunned by many local people now greeted warmly in the shops and streets? How has a place once labelled "a dumping ground for weans that nobody else wanted" been turned into, as one parent puts it, "a school that does not understand failure"?

A crucial factor has been the leadership of the two most recent headteachers: Maureen Lorimer, who came as a teacher to Lochgelly in 1987, and was head from 1992 until last Christmas; and her predecessor Margaret Mackay, who moved the school on from being a place where children were occasionally "withdrawn from the classroom for education".

"Maureen was very professional, but she didn't make a big deal of it, and that spilled over into the ethos of the school," says teacher Helen Farmer. Her colleague Mary Barn observes: "Parents are as important as children here, and she was very good at communicating with them."

Maureen Lorimer herself is keen to credit the work of her predecessor, while emphasising their different management styles. "She established a curriculum, and gave the place a structure," she says. "I was more consultative, I worked from the pupils and staff outwards."

Both staff and parents praise Ms Lorimer's openness and flexibility, and her belief that every child can learn, develop and achieve success, however limited. "She really fought to get our school up to standard, to prove that our kids were as good as other people's," says Linda Jones, chairwoman of the parent teacher association.

The curriculum at Lochgelly is inevitably restricted. But with three teachers, three auxiliaries and three instructors giving a child:adult ratio of 4:1, the staff can give full attention to the very different and demanding needs of each child.

In the classroom for the youngest, full of brightly coloured equipment, the emphasis is on play. A teacher is guiding a boy through a blue plastic tunnel; a girl moves gently to music; an auxiliary teacher chats to a boy in a wheelchair. A little boy, a new pupil, observes the scene warily, his mother hovering nearby.

In the senior room, the focus is on life skills. A teenage boy and girl are doing some simple cookery with one teacher, while another teacher supervises two lads constructing lego. On the wall are reminders of small but important individual goals: "I promise to brush my own hair"; "I will try to stay calm and not lose my temper"; "I will not swing my billiard cue around".

A key element in the school's success has been the partnership between home and school. Parents come into school and learning targets are set jointly; children keep and bring home a daily diary; and their progress is captured on video, so parents can see it for themselves and compare it with progress at home.

The teachers try to encourage the parents to take more risks. "Some of them can be over-protective, so we very gently point out basic things their child can manage," says Mary Barn. A parent might be invited in to observe how a child is able to boil a kettle or take a shower unaided.

Alec Moffat's daughter Alyson, 14, has been at the school for seven years. She is unable to read or write and has severe epilepsy. "Her progress has been beyond belief," says her father. "At first she could hardly speak, and wouldn't play with others; now she carries on proper conversations and interacts with the other children."

Like other parents, he welcomes being treated as a partner in the children's learning. "There's a really strong family atmosphere, the teachers know the kids very well, and even the smallest improvement is treated as a big success. "

Opportunities for continuing education are few at this level of disability in the Lochgelly area, and job prospects for such young people virtually nil. But the Lochgelly North parents are convinced that no greater efforts could be made to improve their children's life chances.

Success Against the Odds: Effective Schools in Disadvantaged Areas, by the National Commission on Education, was published last November by Routledge (Pounds 8.99)

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