A lunchtime club at a Stirling school has altered relations between mainstream and special needs pupils, and improved behaviour and attendance. Eleanor Caldwell reports
Pupils in the lunchtime club signing choir at Wallace High School in Stirling gathered for their final concert practice.
They listened attentively to a message read out by conductor Joan Neilson from her daughter Carri who is profoundly deaf and attends Donaldson's School in Edinburgh: "I am proud that you have taken the time to learn our language and that you can show that sign is just as expressive as the spoken word."
Choir practice then got started and to music teacher Catherine Clarke's piano accompaniment, the 20-strong choir launched into singing and signing. The choir is composed of a combination of Wallace High pupils and nine children from the school's Ochil House special needs department.
Five wheelchair-bound boys with cerebral palsy and four pupils with mild to moderate learning difficulties joined in with mainstream pupils who demonstrated a confident command of their new language with clear and fluid signing.
The choir evolved from a lunchtime club introduced in October 1997. Once a week mainstream pupils at Wallace were invited to join the pupils in Ochil House, "just to come along and have a blether. We were so inundated with kids that we had to extend it to two lunchtimes a week," says Maureen Mathieson, the principal teacher in Ochil House.
There is no set membership: pupils can come along when they want. Now a selection of 15 to 20 pupils from all year groups have become regulars on Tuesday and Thursday lunchtimes. Some pupils with cerebral palsy have no vocal communication, so the club members have learned to communicate in other ways. They use alpha talkers (electronic visual aids which create verbal stimuli), pictorial communication books and, for one pupil, Makaton sign language.
Initially, the group "became comfortable with one another" through playing board games. From the outset, Ochil House staff took a back seat. "We're doing our job by stepping back. The pupils soon get over the hurdle of realising you don't have to speak to communicate," says teacher Margaret Larter.
The staff all agree that their pupils particularly benefited from having contact with able-bodied young people of their own age. It was a new opportunity for some of the boys to have contact with girls.
During a work placement in Ochil House, 18-year-old Carri Neilson introduced the members to new forms of sign language and demonstrated how British Sign Language could be used with music. Her mother Joan says:
"Maybe this made it real for our pupils. They could identify with Carri because she has no speech."
Choir practice at first took place in Ochil House, using recorded music. A move to the music department improved the singing considerably. "It made such a difference just being in a music room with a real piano," says Maureen Mathieson.
During the concert rehearsal, eyes were firmly focused on "bilingual" signing conductor Joan Neilson, and signing movements were confident and unhesitating. The wheel-chair-bound pupils in the midst of the group clearly enjoyed the experience.
Mathieson says: "Eighteen months ago Jamie, who has cerebral palsy, couldn't have coped with being in a crowd with noise around him. He's learned new tolerance. And Kevin, who used Makaton, has learned British Sign Language with the rest of the choir."
Many of the lunch club regulars are enjoying a new sense of self-esteem and have improved school attendance. In the playground at lunchtime, they protect their Ochil House friends. "They often go out of their way to apologise for not being able to come to the club for any reason".
S2 pupils Tracy Laird and Ross Miller help the children and say they go to the club "because we just like it". Both found learning to sign quite difficult but were pleased that they could now speak a new language.
"It's brought together all manner of different pupils," says headteacher Bill Brodie. "It's a powerful manifestation of the council's policy of inclusion and is a very valuable element of school life. The pupils enjoy it because it breaks down barriers."