Crash courses, one-to-one teaching by pupils and teacher training - it's a novel approach to special needs. Virginia Makins reports
When Linda Buckle, a former head of English, was appointed as special educational needs co-ordinator at Whitley Bay County High School six years ago, she was brimming with energy and ideas about teaching, but she had no specific special needs background. Initially, she did the expected thing - in a school that had no other regular special needs staff, she spent her time withdrawing groups of students from lessons and supporting a few in normal classes. Then, after three weeks - and with the essential support of the headteacher - she changed tack.
Whitley Bay County High is a former grammar school in a relatively well-off area of North Tyneside which, as a comprehensive, has kept its good academic reputation and results. Students with special needs had already had years of withdrawal - with limited results - by the time they came to the school at the age of 13. The in-class support had to be shared around, giving a few teachers temporary respite, but achieving little. Linda Buckle says she was offering teachers "sticking plasters for long-term wounds" and even so there were not nearly enough plasters to go around.
So she and Lara Bath, the school's educational psychologist, developed a different approach to special needs. Instead of working with students, they decided to work with teachers. "It's much more effective to use our time to work with teachers and draw up an individual programme for a student. We find any resources a student may need, such as use of a laptop computer, out of our own budget," says Ms Buckle.
"We thought that an unorthodox approach to special educational needs would move the school on faster," says Adam Chedburn, the headteacher. "We have a very talented staff, but we needed a catalyst - a trial inspection had shown there was too much teacher-led learning."
Developing more effective and varied teaching for all students was already a school priority. The first focus was on students who were struggling and ones who were very able - but that was seen as a pincer movement leading to focusing on all student's individual needs and learning styles.
Meanwhile, there were still Year 9 children coming into the school needing help with basic literacy. So Buckle devised a crash course, giving small groups an hour a day for six weeks. She did not bother with phonics - the pupils already had years of that to little effect. Instead she invested in a range of attractive books and, through a mixture of work with tapes, group work and individual reading and writing, tried to get them wanting to read by offering books which interested them, and then to keep them reading.
The groups were arranged so that no child missed more than four hours of any one subject over the six weeks. Subject teachers were initially hesitant about pupils being withdrawn for long periods of time, and the initiative needed strong support from the head.
However, tests at the end of the pilot's six weeks showed that students' literacy had jumped on average by nine months. Two months after the course ended, students were still improving, although at a steadier rate. Almost as important, teachers noticed a change in the students. They could concentrate on reading for much longer - after all, they had been reading for a full hour every day for six weeks - and they had gained a lot of confidence.
The course, which has developed to include more work on computers, is now a regular part of Year 9 for many students. One boy said he liked it because it was short-term, intensive and it worked. "They said I'd jumped by a year."
Now, the school is developing an equivalent crash course in basic mathematics.
There was still a need for in-class support too. The school already had some of its 360 sixth-formers working one-to-one with younger students. This has now developed into a major source of classroom support. Sixty students help in a Year 9 class for one period a week for most of a year.
They all take a training course, choosing at least four options from a menu of seven, including working with children with literacy problems, behaviour problems and children with high ability. They start by helping children on a one-to-one basis and move on to developing resources, planning and teaching parts of lessons and, in some cases, even whole lessons.
David Denby, one of the sixth-form teacher assistants, says: "It was rewarding seeing students get something you'd explained right. And it helped me to communicate better and stay in control without being too authoritarian."
The teachers are also given training in different teaching methods. "When I came there was very little discussion about teaching of any kind," says Buckle. So, to some initial cynicism, she started offering voluntary informal training sessions at lunchtime. About 30 teachers now regularly turn up to each session.
Teachers run most of the sessions, but Bath uses about two-thirds of her time at the school to run courses for groups of teachers, parents and students. "It's a valuable way to work," she says.
She believes the success of the school's approach to special needs pupils is not primarily due to its relatively advantaged social and economic background. "In fact, the school's intake makes its efforts more startling - high-attaining schools can be very static. Here, teachers are encouraged to get involved in new initiatives.
"Any school in North Tyneside, including inner-city schools, could develop similar ways of working if they wanted to. But I can only work this way here because of everything else that goes on in the school. There's an ethos revolving around research and reflective practice and the potential to reach many more children," she says.
Teachers with extra free periods may be asked to join a "resources group" instead of being available to cover for absent staff. Each term the groups look at the teaching materials from a subject department, and develop additional resources to cater for the slowest and fastest learners. Teachers say that it is much easier to identify why some students are having difficulties in subjects other than their own.
The school is now trying out a mentoring scheme for Year 11 and Year 13 students. A research group has been set up to implement and evaluate teaching initiatives.
Ms Buckle's workload - she is now an assistant deputy head as well as the Senco and an English teacher - has recently been lightened through the school taking on Christine Best, a well-respected authority support teacher, as assistant Senco. She now handles most of the statutory special needs work and runs the student reading scheme and the staff resources groups. They try to keep the statutory work to a minimum. "So often, awareness is nine-tenths of the solution," says Ms Buckle. "We use the special needs code of practice partly to test our own ideas against."
Rachel Mays, head of Year 9, who joined the staff this year, says she has found the whole-school approach to special needs very refreshing. In her former schools people used the code of practice as a block to action, claiming you can't do anything because a child is not at stage 1 or stage 2. At Whitley Bay County High, she says, people go ahead and take action when they identify any need. "It's not a cliche here: there really is a problem-solving approach to individual needs."