A special 'betrayal' brought to life

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Searing tale of fight to save SEN school which drove head to brink of suicide comes to stage via governor's pen

It's got passion, drama and a headteacher bullied by local government bureaucrats to the point of attemping suicide, topics not normally on the cards for a session of professional development.

But despite its emotional subject matter, a new play about the tragic effects of special-school closures should be a must-see for all involved in SEN education, its author says.

Death of a Nightingale was inspired by a real-life fight by parents to stop the closure of a special school. It was written by Alan Share, a governor who helped them win their fight and who wants to highlight the "betrayal" of children by the move towards inclusion.

The play tells the story of a parental campaign to keep a fictional special school open. But their efforts are to no avail and ministers rebuff their proposals. In the end, the local authority decides to "lean on" the headteacher and persuade her to stop the protests.

At first, she resists this pressure, but it builds. Eventually she agrees to their demand, but sees this as a betrayal and is consumed with shame. Her suicide attempt is unsuccessful and she makes peace with friends and colleague, but the school closes.

Death of a Nightingale, running November 22-23 at London's New End Theatre, might be fiction, but numbers on roll at local authority-run special schools fell by 2,000 between 2004 and 2008. The percentage of all pupils educated in them has remained unchanged. The number of special schools fell from 1,078 in 2004 to 993 in 2008.

"We can't turn the clock back, but there are issues still that need to be addressed," said Mr Share, who trained as a barrister but ended up running a furniture business, as well as a serving as a governor of Barbara Priestman School in Sunderland, which remains open.

"There is always huge parental and teacher opposition to special schools closing. I can't believe there wasn't huge pressure on the heads of the 80 or so that have closed."

"We recruited an army of teaching assistants to help children with SEN in mainstream schools, but there's not the trained teachers or physios they would have had in special schools.

"Inclusion wasn't worked out well, and we have to live with the consequences. It seems those involved are hoping it will get better and nobody will notice."

Ninon Jermone, New End's associate director and manager, said the play was picked because of its unusual subject matter. "It was written with passion and commitment," she said.

"It's told from such a personal angle, and there is such an effect on pupils and teachers. It is a very brave and timely piece of work, which comes from a different standpoint than usual.

"We hope it will make people think."


Playwrights on education

- Simon Stephens's Punk Rock features a teenage gunman carrying out a school massacre.

- The Surrey drama teacher Alasdair Richardson's An Ofsted Inspector Calls tells of a school visited by pedantic inspectors.

- The playwright John Caplis recounts a supply teacher's contempt for his pupils in Staff Room Stories. He based it on his own experiences and in it he asks his audience to write a short composition.

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