Despite the new presumption that pupils with additional support needs should be taught in 'mainstream' schools, those who work in special schools believe there will always be a place for the dedicated establishment, writes Douglas Blane
It takes a really special school to be deemed "very good" by HM Inspectors against each of 14 different quality indicators.
Accommodation was the only category judged merely "good" in last month's inspection report on Robert Henryson School, Dunfermline - and even that will be remedied soon when the school moves to newly built premises.
But these are uncertain times for most special schools as the "presumption of mainstreaming" begins to bite, reducing their rolls and raising the spectre of possible closure.
Robert Henryson has 29 pupils today, against twice that number just 10 years ago, headteacher Maureen Lorimer says. "We had a lot of worries when inclusion was first talked about, when we weren't at all sure how things would go.
"Different authorities interpret the Act in different ways. After a lot of consultation Fife has taken a very sensible approach, making a commitment to the small number of children, like ours, who will always need separate specialist provision."
Robert Henryson pupils, who are aged 3 to 18, have a wide range of additional support needs arising from complex learning difficulties, sensory impairments and physical disabilities.
"Most have little independent mobility and no verbal communication," Mrs Lorimer says. "I've noticed a change in the past few years, however, with more young people coming in at the lower end of the school who are physically able but have autistic spectrum disorder."
This follows a national trend, with HM Inspectors in 2003 reporting an 85 per cent increase over four years in pupils diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, though they were uncertain if it reflected a real increase or improved diagnostics.
Whatever the cause, the effect on teachers untrained in autism could be serious: swimming lessons have just ended for one small class at Robert Henryson, and the piercing sound of sustained screams can be heard from the changing rooms.
"We won't go in, because anything out of that wee boy's normal routine will make him worse," Mrs Lorimer says. "Something sets him off and he starts screaming and trying to hit staff. It takes training and a certain type of person to deal with that. You have to be very patient and keep calmly working.
"You will never see anyone lose their temper here - never. They know the child is struggling and have tremendous empathy with him. But as a manager I do have to make sure they are well trained, get the chance to talk about their feelings and work with different pupils from year to year."
As the headteacher talks, the screams from the changing rooms continue unabated. A purposeful-looking teacher emerges from another room and Mrs Lorimer says: "Do you want me to draft Emma in?"
"No thanks; we're getting there," the teacher replies. "We don't know what set him off this morning. It's often like that. Some wee thing out of the ordinary that we didn't notice but he did." She heads back into the fray.
Perhaps surprisingly, dealing with this kind of very challenging behaviour is not the hardest part of the job, Mrs Lorimer says: "You either love working in a special school or you hate it. If you love it, the challenges are a big part of the reason. Progress with our kids might seem small to a visitor - just a wee smile, maybe, after weeks of working - but it is well earned and very rewarding.
"No, the hardest part for most of us is losing a child. It is not uncommon, but you never get used to it. The small numbers mean we come to know our pupils inside out, and their families too. We get very attached to them.
Two of our kids have died in the past year. That is really hard."
As the head leads the way to the PE class, the screams fade: "It might not sound like it today, but we have made a lot of progress with that wee lad.
It's about strong partnership with parents, a simple timetable, a predictable environment and great staff."
The implications of the rapid rise in children with autism were touched on in a Scottish parliamentary debate last month (November 3) on the presumption of mainstreaming and the future of special schools. National Autistic Society figures were quoted, showing that 40 per cent of mainstream schools teaching pupils with autistic spectrum disorder have not a single teacher trained to deal with it.
"Autism is just one area where I think mainstream could make a lot more use of special schools as a resource," says Mrs Lorimer. "It is beginning to happen, with a few schools coming to us to learn about systems and methodologies that we know can work in a classroom environment."
While it is not obviously suited to pupils with limited mobility, one classroom environment they particularly enjoy is the gym, Mrs Lorimer says.
But where a mainstream school would have wallbars and vaulting boxes, Robert Henryson has hammocks, boat-swings, plastic tunnels and gait trainers.
Teacher Pat Leggate explains the benefits as she lifts a young boy into a red and white striped hammock suspended from a metal frame: "It's good for Greg physically, because he can't walk and spends a lot of time sitting down. But the physical activity is just part of it. We are also working on his communication."
She gives the hammock a push to set it swinging.
"Again?" she asks, when it stops. Greg responds with a barely audible vocalisation and a fleeting smile, and is rewarded with another push.
"It's very important to teach our youngsters to respond and communicate,"
Mrs Leggate says.
"Gemma has a broken arm, so she's nice and safe today in this boat-swing,"
she indicates a large blue cradle hanging securely from the framework.
"We're looking for her to let us know she likes it and wants another go."
Despite the splint, young Gemma is animated in her little cocoon, and clearly enjoying herself.
"All the kids like to go high," Mrs Leggate says. "Gentle is not in their vocabulary. But it's not just fun - we're using their enjoyment to motivate their learning."
For the headteacher, this is a key aspect of a good special school. Mrs Lorimer says: "We do care for the children, and we have a team of nurses and 29 educational assistants as well as 12 teachers.
Every child needs a lot of attention and gets it. But this is a school and not a care-home. They are here to learn and we are here to teach them."
One of Robert Henryson's key strengths, according to the inspectors, is the "very good curriculum and well planned learning experiences" it provides.
Teachers and management construct a curriculum for each child by borrowing and adapting, as appropriate, from Pre-5, 5-14, Elaborated 5-14 and Access curriculums, Mrs Lorimer says: "Curriculum development is relatively new in special schools, so we're learning and moving forward all the time. What we're working on is integrating the 5-14 and Elaborated 5-14 curriculums.
"The latter is a developmental model and gives lots of ideas about things to do, whereas 5-14 is about what you're teaching and your attainment targets. We have successfully integrated them in a number of subjects and are working on the others. It's an approach the inspectors thought was very sound."
Robert Henryson pupils are timetabled, so there is an expectation that at a given time of day they will be learning maths, communication, science, PE or art. "We also aim to teach classes by age rather than ability," Mrs Lorimer says. "That, again, is about delivering an appropriate curriculum.
It's a challenge to bring physically able young people together with those who have profound and multiple difficulties. But it is educationally important."
All around Robert Henryson, youngsters who would, not long ago, have been kept almost entirely passive are engaging with the world, learning how it affects them and how they can influence it, exploring its tastes, textures, sights, sounds and smells: lively piano music and a plate of appetising cakes bring number concepts to girls in the nursery; Ryan takes a message to the office by walking there in a gait trainer; Roxley touches a switch with his head and his smart wheelchair moves smartly forward; Georgia points to symbols to select a sequence of activities; and Kirsten and Hollie reach out across the gulf between them, and touch hands.
Teacher Alison Walker, who is working this session in the upper school, said: "We give our pupils a wide variety of experiences and a broad education. The staff are very specialised. I've been here for 17 years. It is so rewarding when a child makes progress after weeks, months, sometimes years of working with them."
Inclusion in the mainstream is the ideal, she believes: "But for some pupils there's no way mainstream can offer what we provide in terms of expertise and attention to pupils as individuals. I would like to see more people visiting special schools to see just what the kids and teachers can do.
"The best in-service is when you get a chance to talk to other teachers.
There should be more opportunities for teachers in special and mainstream schools to talk to each other and to learn from each other."
Asked to summarise what can be learnt from a special school the inspectors regard so highly, Maureen Lorimer highlights systems and people.
"Our staff are very creative at making the curriculum come alive," she says. "Taking national guidelines and integrating curriculums is actually the easy bit. Our teachers then study what they have to deliver, the attainment targets and topic areas, the diverse needs of the individual pupils - and they create meaningful, relevant and enjoyable learning experiences.
"The crucial foundation for all that, of course, is a robust set of systems and structures that make things work on a day-to-day level - meeting the health needs of our children, the training needs of our staff, getting routines in place for moving and handling, for safety and for child protection.
"Once you have all that, then you can teach."
School Authority 2002 2003 2004
Robert Henryson Fife 37 34 29
Broomlea Glasgow 34 30 25
Clydeview North Lanarkshire 33 32 24
Ballikinrain (ind) Stirling 45 40 35
Cunard West Dunbartonshire 17 14 7
Carrongrange Falkirk 224 189 175
Glenburn Inverclyde 95 88 78
Corseford (ind) Renfrewshire 51 43 39
Some special schools have already seen a drop in pupil numbers