A state-of-the-art building and the latest technology have contributed greatly to the integration of special needs children into a large new comprehensive in Sussex. But it's the staff that really deserve the credit, as Harvey McGavin discovers
As the train to Hastings in East Sussex nears the end of the line, just as the track curves into St Leonards-on-Sea, an extraordinary sight greets its passengers.
You can't help but notice Filsham Valley school. Its pale gold brickwork stands out above its lush playing fields, and the clean lines of its award-winning architecture jut proudly from the hillside where it stands. There's a confidence about the place. It's as if this unashamedly modern school is saying to all the other buildings of the Victorian resort: "We've found a new way of doing things."
Indeed it has. Filsham Valley was built at a cost of nearly Pounds 10 million and to a specific brief - to integrate special needs pupils as seamlessly as possible into comprehensive schooling. Growing numbers of secondary-age children and the closure of a nearby special school prompted East Sussex county council to combine the two in a state-of-the-art construction.
Now, four years after opening, it has a successful Office for Standards in Education report under its belt and a full complement of 900 pupils - 35 of whom have special needs. But the school's achievements are as much to do with the attitude of its staff as to any head start it received from the architects.
As Mike Phillips, the school's head of technology, walks along its broad, wheelchair-friendly corridors, he admits that having all mod cons has helped. The school's facilities are, he says, "the envy of a lot of people".
When the architects sat down to design the site, special needs students were at the centre of their plans. And at the centre of the school is a courtyard, with the classrooms for special needs students built around it. "Their classrooms are right in the middle of the school," says Mike Phillips. "Everybody passes through that area - it's not shoved out on to a wing. "
However, special needs pupils spend most of their time in mainstream classes. Technology lessons in particular - because of their hands-on nature and added safety aspects - have set plenty of challenges for Mike Phillips and his staff.
"We work on individual pupils' needs and think of how best we can cater for them. I might be looking at someone and thinking, 'The way they are doing that is a bit cack-handed - I need to find a better way to do it'.
"When I am teaching children in wheelchairs I will squat next to them - it puts a different perspective on the way you look at things."
Height-adjustable benches are set in the middle of the technology labs, which are full of other, barely perceptible but incredibly canny, adaptations. Home-made wooden batons are nail holders for unsteady hands, a simple stand with pegs grips wires for soldering, and a perspex keyboard template keeps typing errors to a minimum. Often, the equivalent devices are commercially available, but these in-house inventions keep costs down.
"We are trying to save money," says Mike Phillips. "If we can produce these things for a few pounds, we can benefit the education of all the pupils. "
There are Braille facilities for blind or partially sighted pupils, who can use heat-sensitive paper for their drawings, which, when treated, puts the image into relief. Children with cerebral palsy, who can have difficulty picturing an object drawn in two dimensions, have small wooden maquettes (three-dimensional wooden models) of, for example, lorries, to help them.
Technology is helping in other ways, too. Some of the school's special needs pupils spend a lot of time off through illness, so Mike Phillips is planning to put worksheets on the Internet to help them catch up.
"We try not to highlight disabilities," he says, "but we do talk about it in tutorials. I might say technology is about improving the quality of life, and there are people in this room whose quality of life has been improved by using electric wheelchairs.
"I found at my last school that if you try to get people to help, they will do it grudgingly - which is true of a lot of schools. But we have developed an ethos here so that the students treat physically disabled pupils as their equals. A lot of them have been inspired by their work.
"If these pupils had not come here, I don't think they would have had the opportunity to study these things. I get a buzz out of teaching them. It's not sympathy, it's just that they can do things I hadn't dreamt they would be able to do."
Helen Kenward, the school's head of special needs, deputy headteacher and the author of two books on integrated education, sees other benefits in the school's all-embracing admissions policy. "There is a greater understanding of people's differences. In a personal and social education lesson I was teaching the other day, a child who was registered blind was talking to the group about how he felt ostracised at his old school just because he was blind. Then there was a pause and this girl said, 'They are no different from us - what's the big deal?' " PE lessons have been adapted to allow everyone to take part. With some subtle changes (a five-second, no-tackle rule for wheelchair users and simple devices (a batting tee for rounders) everyone can participate. Helen Kenward believes that a united team and a common goal of inclusiveness can triumph, whatever the surroundings.
"Other schools might say, 'Well, they can do it because they have got amazing resources', which we have, but it's more than that. We do everything we can to include children in all the school's activities. Hopefully this school will inspire other schools to do the same thing."