A matter of high expectations

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Lucy Ward meets the determined Sadie Walton, Britain's first female disabled principal.

There are advantages to being disabled," says Sadie Walton, new principal of Stourbridge College. "You can always get a parking space outside Marks and Spencer's."

Sadie, who wears a caliper on her right leg - a legacy of polio contracted when she was four years old - is only half joking. Britain's first female disabled principal, a trained mathematician and engineer, is eminently practical in her approach to her own disability and to the whole question of special needs.

Promoted from deputy principal at the West Midlands college this summer, she has taken up her new post just weeks before the publication of the Tomlinson committee's long-awaited report on special needs in further education. Above all, she believes, it must address the practical issues - identifying and removing the barriers preventing people with disabilities succeeding, or even participating, in education and training.

At the same time, disabled students need to do more to help themselves. Discouraged by other's low expectations, too few shout loudly enough for the support they need.

Sadie, enthusiastic and energetic with an infectious laugh, is more than prepared to stick up for herself. Should any orange badge-less motorist sneak into a disabled parking space for a swift foray into Birmingham's MS, she will politely point out their error. "It does embarrass my daughters sometimes, but I am not doing it for me - it's for others who may not have the confidence to ask for help. That lack of confidence is one of the main reasons why people with disabilities underachieve."

Her own confidence, she believes, she owes largely to an education entirely in mainstream institutions. Though specialists advised a special school when she came out of hospital aged five, her mother fought to get her into the primary close to home in Bedworth, near Nuneaton. Grammar school followed, where teachers' expectations of her were, if anything, higher than of her classmates. "Some of them were rather shocked if I misbehaved or didn't do my homework. They thought I should't be worrying about a social life and boys, but I'm afraid I was."

During another spell in hospital, aged 14, Sadie met other youngsters her own age who had been to special schools. "Their level of education was significantly lower than mine and, more importantly, they didn't expect much. That was when the difference really hit me."

Spurred on by her achievements and an encouraging physics teacher, she moved on to Loughborough University - demolishing more barriers as the only woman among 76 men studying mechanical engineering. She loved the course but had reservations about the all-male environment, particularly during her industry placement at Dunlop Aviation. While she sat working on brake-testing systems for the new Concorde jet, she could hear her male bosses in the office next door debating whether to offer their first female engineer equal pay. They didn't, but she was given a place on the tea rota with the secretaries - a privilege she gave up, along with the job, on finishing her degree.

A move to London with her husband, a fellow Loughborough graduate who is now professor of mechanical engineering at Birmingham University, prompted her to try teaching. She "loved it from the first day" and was swiftly immersed in a successful career, moving from school to school around the country as her husband switched academic posts, and gathering promotions as she went.

Their return to the Midlands saw her switch to further education, starting at Bournville College and moving to Brooklyn College - now North Birmingham - before arriving at Stourbridge as vice-principal in 1990.

Now having risen, aged 50, to the top job, Sadie stresses two key themes she hopes to put at the heart of her regime. The first is her commitment to colleges' role in genuinely furthering education - taking education and training to those missing out, and helping them lock into learning at whatever level. She has a home-grown example of her belief that everyone finds their path into learning in their own way: her own younger daughter Amelia, now 16, was a reluctant reader before developing a passion for Aston Villa football club and gaining fluency as she devoured newspaper sports pages.

The new principal's second theme is employability. As the biggest employer in Stourbridge, the college knows a thing or two about the subject, she reckons, and is well-placed to equip students with the skills needed for the marketplace. Her recipe involves attitude, reflected in punctuality, dress, attendance, combined with respect. "It's a practical approach," she admits, "but I've got a practical mind. I'm an engineer."

Arming students with the skills to help themselves links with her approach to disability. The Tomlinson report, she hopes, will stress the need for disabled students to stick up for their interests.

One step urgently needed, but, she fears, unlikely to be taken, is an end to the "lumping together" of the needs of students with learning difficulties and those with physical or sensory disabilities. "For physical disabilities, the issue is very largely about equipment, and for the others it is really about teaching. Treating them together ends up wasting resources."

More cash would clearly be helpful - particularly to compensate for local authority cut-backs on student transport. Sadie's own integrated schooling was possible only thanks to the Midland Red bus company's cooperation in carrying her door-to-door. Funding methods could also recognise the "very, very small steps" made by students with learning difficulties.

But to deserve extra money, colleges must do better at proving their success in educating students with disabilities. "We need proper performance indicators so we can see these students are progressing and fulfilling themselves, not just being looked after a few hours a week. If we want more money for equiment, we should link it to outcomes."

The lack of stringent monitoring of the effectiveness of support given to students with disabilities reflects continuing low expectations, Sadie believes. Even the Tomlinson report, she suspects, may be informed more by a general philanthropic intent than an understanding of the practical advantages of change. "Society benefits from using the talents, the skills, ideas, creativity and understanding of as wide a proportion of its community as possible. Whilst you debar any section of the community from bringing that contribution to the fore, then you are actually stopping society going forward.

"Unfortunately, I am not convinced that people actually believe that. I think they actually think we should support those students because it is a nice thing to do."

These are not comfortable words, and may unsettle colleagues in the FE world just as Sadie's teachers were shocked when their disabled pupil failed to knuckle down to her homework. But the new principal, veteran of orange badge confrontations, is not afraid to offer a few home truths.

She herself has found ways to surmount the barriers posed by her disability, and even to use it. It ensures she is remembered, and, she jokes, can win her the attention sometimes denied to "someone short and female". Teaching and a need to keep control of two daughters who could outrun her even as toddlers taught her to use her strong voice to command attention.

Sadie accepts that her disability is likely to place on her the mantle of role model and spokeswoman on special needs issues in education. "Of course I want to be thought of first and foremost as a principal. But being disabled is part of me. One of the worst things anybody can say to me is 'I never think of you as disabled', which means 'We have let you be an honorary member of our club'. I am me and the disability is part of me. I would not be what I am without the experiences it gave me."

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