A special case - and proud of it

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
Scotland has seven national schools for special educational needs, which face losing their government grants next year. Raymond Ross reports on why they are fighting moves to withdraw their national status and funding

"There are seven grant-aided schools in Scotland and the only thing common to us is the grant," says Kevin Tansley, principal of the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. "You just can't put all pupils with special educational needs into the one bracket. Even our grants are different."

As part of the Scottish Executive's drive for social inclusion it is proposed that central funding for the seven national SEN schools is phased out, that where possible SEN pupils will enter mainstream schools, and that central funding will be diverted through local authorities for the upkeep of the schools as local rather than national resources.

"It's a sensitive area and a tough battle," says Mr Tansley, whose central funding of pound;1.5 million - about half the school's running costs - is guaranteed only until the end of April 2002.

With other monies coming from local authority fees and charitable funding, he feels the school might well be forced to double its fees which presently range from pound;10,995 (mainstream day) to pound;32,844 (multi-handicapped residential).

"That's what's likely to happen and it's a concern, because the local authorities could use it as an argument for not sending pupils here, even though the old central funds will be channelled to them."

Moreover, the proposal that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities monitors the spending does not hold water for Mr Tansley, because the money will no longer be ring-fenced and may be channelled elsewhere within pressurised local authorities, some of which are in any case already saying they are leaving COSLA.

The idea of the Royal Blind School becoming a City of Edinburgh school has never been discussed, he says. And with a school which draws its 120 pupils from across 23 Scottish and 12 English local authorities - from Durham to Shetland - he finds the idea faintly ridiculous.

"Even from their point of view," he says, "why should Edinburgh pay for an Orkney pupil?" If the best method of defence is attack, Mr Tansley has clearly been polishing an arsenal of arguments: "We believe we are a national school and we need to preserve that status. Not only do we provide a full curriculum for ages three to 19, including five to 14, Standard grades and Highers, but we help train teachers from all over Britain and Europe.

"With 200 specialist staff we are a centre of excellence and a model of good practice.

"We have helped develop Braille materials for the Higher Still Assessment Bank as well as two Braille early literacy schemes (Get Going and Read On) which are now used in England as well as Scotland.

"We are, and have to be, at the forefront of developing communication systems for the partially-sighted and the blind. We've developed an 'on-body' sign language for pupils who are not, or not yet, able to learn sign language gestures or symbols. We need to maintain that kind of pioneering work.

"We work with Edinburgh University in the training of teachers, which is in keeping with Professor Sheila Riddell's recommendations (in the Riddell report) that awareness of disability needs to be raised in teacher training.

"Quite simply, the expertise we have here is indispensable and having a school this size also aids research," he says.

But Mr Tansley obviously believes in taking the fight into the opponent's camp.

"I'd like the executive to evaluate our claim to be a national centre of excellence because we have a right to that claim. We are arguing here for the needs of the children and that's why we need a full review which will formally recognise this. Ideally, we'd like full funding from central government."

With reference to the Riddell recommendations, Mr Tansley says the RBS already shares staff with mainstream schools and there are split placements between mainstream primaries and the school.

"For example, an East Lothian secondary took a blind child this session and we supported the process with staff training," he says. However, full inclusion is not on the agenda for most RBS pupils.

"A handful of our pupils may move towards mainstream but a lot, in fact, come to us after unsuccessful careers in mainstream. Most of our pupils could not be there.

"A lot of our pupils come from the upper primary levels when parents begin to worry about large comprehensives. If you're non-sighted that's the time when difficulties become more acute because of the amount of intensive written work to be processed.

"Here we work on adapting materials and not simply putting them into Braille. Textbooks have become more graphic in recent years with more illustration and less language, but that language is often geared to the illustrations - obviously of little use to a blind pupil."

The bottom line for the headteacher is the expertise of staff which, at the RBS, ranges from teachers to occupational and physiotherapists, residential and nursing staff, mobility staff and parent counsellors; a pool of staff, he argues, is in itself a national resource.

"The needs of the partially-sighted are different from those of the blind, just as born-blind needs are different from those who have had some vision in the past. Here, a teacher can make use of visual memory.

"But there's the caring side to consider as well. Can you imagine losing your vision in adolescence? The trauma? The blow to self-esteem? We have to pick up the pieces here and it is a complex area that demands expertise and experience."

Mr Tansley argues that the RBS is an inclusive school ("no barriers to any pupil taking any subject") which has a "holistic and multi-disciplinary" approach to teaching blind and multi-handicapped blind pupils, with a teacher-pupil ratio of one to six by national agreement.

A new pound;4 million investment at their Canaan Lodge campus for the multi-handicapped, which opens at the end of April this year, will raise the school's total residential capacity to 80. The RBS also has plans for post-school provision to support young people in mainstream colleges by providing a residential centre and support staff.

Mr Tansley is positive about the future and believes the school will be supported by local authorities at the end of the day, but that does not prevent him from venting his present frustration on behalf of parents and pupils:

"If parents take a decision to send pupils here, then they should not be confronted with costs. They should not be told they are being selfish, that their decision is wrong," he says.

"Yes, some of our parents have to put up with that. Some lose heart, they are put off. It took one set of parents two-and-a-half years to persuade their local authority to place the pupil here. It's patently not fair."

Such experiences are also related by the director of the Scottish Centre for Children with Motor Impairments, Lillemor Jernqvist.

"We draw pupils from around half of the Scottish local authorities, with further placements from England. At the moment we even have a pupil from the Faroe Isles. We have a high international profile that Scotland can be proud of.

"But if the other half of Scotland's local authorities were to inform their parents about us we could turn the national picture around. Statistically, a child with cerebral palsy is born every third day in Scotland.

"We need to get to the professionals to get to the parents, who have had to fight battles to get their children here. I've started visiting the directorates now and I've been well-received. Referrals are picking up and I sense a change of mood," she says.

Change of mood or not, the centre at Craighalbert, Cumbernauld, is in the same position as the Royal Blind School, with pound;0.5m from central funds ring-fenced only until April 2002.

Craighalbert has been given no further information and there have been no talks with the local authority in North Lanarkshire.

"That would be up to the board of governors, but we're waiting for the Scottish Parliament to debate the whole issue. We're also waiting to have discussions with the Scottish education department which has always supported us and seen us as a useful resource at a national level."

Ninety to 95 per cent of Craighalbert pupils go into (or return to) mainstream schooling from the centre. It combines the principles of conductive education as devised at the Peto Institute in Budapest, with national advice on the curriculum in Scotland, to teach the children independence, everyday activities and life skills within a nursery or day school up to the age of eight.

"A child who cannot sit up is taught to sit," says Ms Jernqvist. "It's an educational model, not a medical one. All national guidelines are in place here and the pupils can access all the curriculum due to rigorous planning and good use of time.

"We are totally inclusive with a full range of abilities and problems. But each child has potential and that is what inclusion is all about.

"You have to give the child the opportunity to do things for themselves and grow in self-esteem. It's not a very inclusive society we live in if children like ours do not get the opportunity to learn how to put their coats on or wipe their bums."

Most Craighalbert pupils attend for three to four years. There are no residential pupils, but the centre has room for residential families in its three houses nearby.

Ms Jernqvist says she has no time for worries about the future. "My focus does not allow worries but if our fees go up - probably by doubling or even trebling the present figure of pound;1,200 fulltime per year - local authorities would have difficulties meeting them.

"I press on because I know what these children can achieve. I'm not just talking here about being able to walk, but being a full human being.

"I know what we do is good and we're doing everything we can to argue our case with the executive, local authorities, parents and MSPs. There's a lot of support, but if things did go badly it would be the children who lost out."

The centre has its own staff training, a two-year programme leading to a certificate in early education for children with motor impairment.

"You become a Craighalbert conductor, a multi-competent specialist who is a nurse, nursery nurse, teacher and therapist," says the director.

Now in its 10th year, Craighalbert has 30 staff, including support, and a ratio of 1.5 staff to every pupil.

"All children here have split placements and our staff go into mainstream schools as support. In terms of the Riddell recommendations we are clearly ahead of the game. We are about early intervention, inter-agency working - things which other people are still trying to establish," Ms Jernqvist claims.

"There isn't one single solution for people with complex lives and problems. Inclusion doesn't work for everyone. There must be a range of provision and we should be part of that.

"The key to all of this is that provision should be based on the child's needs and not, for example, on ideology or finance."

Craighalbert was set up as a national centre and its desire to expand provision is exemplified by its new heated swimming pool, which received pound;360,000 from Lottery funds.

Ms Jernqvist believes that "local inclusion may well be dependent on national expertise" and that Craighalbert should be evaluated in its own right.

"I hope Scotland would want some centres where there is a distinct way of dealing with education. We need more centres, not fewer. Why, for example, do we not have a centre for autism?" Ms Jernqvist says she'd like to expand the centre's work to include all local authorities in a flexible manner and to input the training of class teachers and classroom assistants who work with children with disabilities.

"It would have to be a whole-school approach. Also, there's a national shortage of physiotherapists, so children are not getting a full service. Isn't that another reason for looking at an all-day education approach? We could certainly have a role in training here."

But if the director's argument is that Craighalbert is a national centre whose potential remains as yet unfulfilled, she is equally clear in her own mind that purse strings must not be tightened, whether by central government or local authorities.

"Whether in mainstream or special school, nothing comes cheap with these children. Nor should it."

The other national grant-aided schools are:

* Harmeny School, Edinburgh for young children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties

* Donaldson's College for the Deaf, Edinburgh

* Corseford Residential School, Kilbarchan for children with cerebral palsy and other significant difficulties

* East Park School, Glasgow, for children with severe and complex learning difficulties with additional disabilities

* Stanmore House Residential School, Lanark, for children with severe and complex learning difficulties with other medical needs

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