Best of both worlds

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Forty pupils from a crumbling north London special school this term moved into five schools customised for their needs - all part of a Pounds 3.8m sophisticated mainstreaming programme. Reva Klein reports

You've heard of flying saucers, of ancestral portraits with moving eyes, of Elvis stacking shelves down Tesco's. Well, a tiny special school in Haringey, north London, has joined the annals of strange but true-isms. Last July, a week before its final closure, the walls of the Vale School were seen to be weeping. Great torrents of tears ran down them, as if to say to the children and staff "don't leave".

So it was raining and the roof leaked like a sieve...but it seemed an appropriate interpretation at the time. It was accompanied by more conventional tears from staff and teachers sad to leave a school that, however ramshackle, had nurtured and educated children with physical disabilities for the past 73 years.

At the closing assembly, as they sang a song written by one of the teachers called "Moving On," children, staff, governors and parents had mixed emotions of sadness and hope.

At the beginning of this term, every one of the 40 Vale children, no matter how severe their disability, was transferred - with all the school's staff - to four local primaries and a secondary in Haringey LEA. In exchange for their crumbling wooden buildings, they have become a part of lively school communities, all of which have been painstakingly designed to meet their many requirements. In what could be the most sophisticated, rigorously developed and expensive mainstreaming programme in the country, they are now using state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, customised to their needs.

Today at Belmont and Lancasterians Infants and Juniors Schools and at Northumberland Park Secondary School, children with a range of disabilities are having lunch and playing in the playground. Some of them are sitting side-by-side in lessons with their mainstream counterparts. For most, it will be the first time that they will have been part of a "normal" school.

Depending on the extent of their needs, some are now full-time mainstream; others will spend most of their time in the Vale's resource bases, added on to the school buildings but carefully designed to be integral to the three schools. All the Vale staff have remained in post, moving to the different schools where they will continue to support Vale children and work alongside class teachers.

While Belmont and Northumberland Park have been absorbing Vale children with less complex needs and their specialist staff for years, the new, architect-designed resource bases at Lancasterians (where there is also a new nursery) and at Northumberland Park represent a new beginning. The large and airy classrooms are designed to accommodate the large standing frames and wheelchairs the children use. The bathrooms have height adjustable sinks, and changing tables and toilets are designed to allow attendants ample space for manouevre. Pools will soon be in operation - there's been a few design glitches - to give even the most immobile children a regular opportunity for physical enjoyment, exercise and liberation.

For the most severely disabled Vale children, it will be the only point at which they will access the curriculum.

The bases are deliberately not called units because their function is to serve as a point of departure for most of the children. "What we're doing is creating a safe platform from which to move the children on," says Jenny Tosh, deputy head of the Vale and Haringey's adviser on inclusion. "But while we're working towards 100 per cent inclusion, there are some children who aren't going to be mainstreamed."

This enormous project, which officially "opens" on November 20, didn't happen overnight. The Vale and Haringey Council spent 11 years working on the Pounds 3.8 million project, involving consultation and collaboration with children, parents and the five participating mainstream schools. The Vale's headteacher Gerald Hill, his staff and governors were determined to create a bespoke programme that would not compromise the high quality and extensive services that Vale children need - and that their parents demand. "What we have aimed for is the best of both worlds: a combination of the special school's best practices and everything that being included into a mainstream school has to offer," he says Central to the Vale's philosophy is that integration should be phased in incrementally, depending on the child's development and needs. Jean Brown, the indefatigable chair of Vale governors and now a governor at Lancasterians, puts it like this: "You just can't plonk children like ours into mainstream. This is a constant collaborative effort involving regular assessment and consultation." Part of that process involved all Vale students attending their prospective schools a day a week throughout last year to get acclimatised.

In a telling video made last year by the Vale students, in collaboration with Northumberland Park, children talked about their worries and their hopes. Among the concerns of the Vale children were that "children might have fights there" "it'll be too noisy," and "children will take the mick". In a test drive around Northumberland Park in their wheelchairs, they pointed out practical problems, including a lift button that was too high. Northumberland Park has now, among other things, lowered the buttons and made other adjustments. But the video had another purpose: it was used as part of extensive in-service training with the participating schools' staff and was also shown to and discussed by Northumberland Park pupils.

Although only a few weeks into term, the Vale students are already at ease in their new surroundings. At Belmont Infants, where Vale children have been integrated for 14 years, Debbie sits with a small Year 1 group and her teacher from the Vale doing number work. She is an active participant, offering answers with the quickest of them. Debbie has cerebral palsy and has no independent mobility at all, but her speech is unaffected and she is learning at a level appropriate to her age.

Says Jenny Tosh: "Debbie is bright and assertive. She has a clear idea of who she is and what she wants from life. If a child asks why Debbie can't walk, Debbie herself will say 'because I have cerebral palsy."' Sheila Bailey, head of Belmont Infants, says that with younger able-bodied children, it's easy for issues around disability to be discussed out in the open. "But the children do have to learn not to smother and baby the Vale children."

There wasn't much chance of that with Stacey, a Year 6 pupil at Belmont Juniors' last year. One of the most physically demanding children the school has had, she went abseiling on a residential week with the rest of her class last spring.

Academic inclusion brings different challenges. At Lancasterians Juniors, the Vale children, all of whom are in wheelchairs and some of whom are unable to speak, will do music and drama and some curricular work together next term, after they have settled in. Working towards that goal requires a lot of time, thought and shifts in attitude. As Jenny Tosh sees it: "In mainstream education, speed is valued - which is mismatched with the needs of Vale children. But with time we hope to match the two. Inclusion isn't just a matter of physical access. It's about teaching differently, about thinking about the different ways that children learn."

Lunchtime and going to the toilet, issues not generally considered a problem in mainstream schools, are the most time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of the day for many Vale children. At lunchtime, children with cerebral palsy often have to cope with swallowing problems and attendants must follow children's personalised feeding profiles. It's one thing patiently to spoon feed a child in the peace and quiet of the Vale and another to do it in the "airport hangar" environment of a lively junior school, in the words of Lizzie's attendant at Lancasterians Juniors. Lizzie takes 45 minutes to eat, from start to finish. It's a messy business but one that can't be hurried. But they get there in the end.

And you get the feeling that so too will each of the children, in their own ways, in their new environment, at their own pace. For their parents, it's been a long time coming. But Julia Slater, whose son David left the Vale to become fully integrated at Belmont for five years before coming to Northumberland Park, offers optimism to other parents whose children are just starting in mainstream. "His personality has blossomed. He aspires to do everything the other children do and his dependence on special services has decreased. I think he could now cope socially anywhere." And a sixth-former at Northumberland Park, Nevin Ilhan, makes it clear that the benefits of inclusion go beyond the Vale children and parents. "It widens our views and knowledges, having them here. It helps us confront our stereotypes and helps us communicate with other people generally. They are our friends."

The Vale Development Trust, an independent fundraising charity chaired by Nicky Harrison, CBE, former chair of Haringey education committee, hopes to raise an additional Pounds 1.5 million to go towards playground adaptations, to provide medical supplies and to develop an "Independence House" for older children. Tel: 0171 354 9304. Details from Nicky Harrison, 11 Cholmeley Park, London N6 5ET.

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