Better by design

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Every aspect of Portland school is built to help its pupils. Diana Hinds reports

Inclusion is a feeling, not a physical environment," says Jennifer Chart, headteacher of Portland school, Sunderland, a special school for 11 to 19-year-olds with severe, multiple and profound learning difficulties. But she is the first to admit that its airy, attractive and spacious building helps to enhance all that goes on inside it. Portland, which was opened by Tony Blair in 2000, still has the gleam and freshness of a brand new school.

The buildings were purpose-built for children with special needs, and come replete with ceiling hoists, specialised bathroom facilities, a sensory room and handsome hydrotherapy pool. Its wide, bright corridors allow easy wheelchair access, and its classrooms, with floor-to-ceiling windows, give on to pretty courtyard areas, where a few chickens scratch about in the sun - a pleasant diversion for those children who spend most of their day lying flat.

For the able-bodied, the extensive grounds include five-a-side football pitches. All the children benefit from well-equipped cookery, music, art and ICT rooms, and even the parents get their own space to make tea and chat.


Jennifer Chart was involved in every aspect of decision-making in the design of the school - from the choice of site to the choice of paint colours and door-fittings. She is a champion of inclusion in its widest sense, so she saw the school's location - it has easy access to local shops where her students gain vital life experiences - as key. And nearby primary and secondary schools allow students to mix with their mainstream peers.

The school roll has more than doubled in the past five years, from 60 to 150, and Portland now takes children with a wider and more challenging range of special needs. There are more children with behaviour difficulties who are physically aggressive, and more with profound and complex physical needs, some of whom have degenerative illnesses; nine have died in the past four years. Chart supports staff by making counselling available, as well as opportunities for them to sample stress-relieving therapies.


Few, if any, pupils at Portland would be comfortable with a full-time place in a mainstream secondary school. While some have fared well in mainstream primaries, with a differentiated curriculum and a high degree of support, life in a large, busy secondary school is "quite another ball game", says Chart, not least because of the pressures of the social environment.

Sunderland local authority, she says, acknowledges the role its special schools play and, while other authorities were closing special schools, was involved in making the most of the expertise each could offer the mainstream. Portland, for instance, is valued for its work with challenging behaviour and autism, as well as its assessment of pupils working outside the national curriculum.

At Portland, "inclusion happens within school", says Chart. Most of the children with profound needs in the school's sensory education department spend at least 10 per cent of their time with children from key stages 3 and 4 or tertiary departments, sharing activities such as music, drama, cookery and social skills.

Then there is inclusion outside school - with Portland pupils going into the community and to mainstream schools, as well as mainstream pupils coming to Portland. Older Portland pupils, for instance, have weekly sessions with pupils from a school for moderate learning difficulties, who help them with things like shopping or bowling as part of their course in child development. Year 8 pupils from a mainstream secondary do design and technology with Year 8s at Portland, and Year 11s help Portland with ICT.

Less academic mainstream pupils come to Portland to get accreditation on its wheelchair-handling course, and Portland pupils take sports certificates at local sports colleges.

"We have a strong and sound network - which is not something all special schools have," says Chart. "It can be difficult to organise, but the other schools are keen to include us. We try to go to a variety of schools so that we are working in some of the home areas of our students."

Portland prides itself on offering to each of its pupils the most appropriate educational opportunities, and to this end, staff are encouraged to innovate. Pete Wells left the school last summer to join the Sunderland City Learning Centre, but his work at Portland won him Becta ICT practitioner of the year award for inclusion in 2006.

His legacy to the school comes in the form of 40 "sensory stories"

(downloadable, free, from, which he wrote, designed and put on computer for use in the sensory education department with teenagers still in the early stages of development.

Wells was familiar with Story Sacks, which use a variety of sensory props to tell stories, but he felt these were not sufficiently adventurous or lively for teenagers. So he began by turning an anodyne tale about a grandmother into "a spooky, bogeyman story", and then recreated it on computer using switches - so they tell the story.

"Often they don't get to experience things outside their front door and we have to get them to experience as much as they can," he says.

Once a week the class is treated to a colourful rendition of a sensory story, with computer images projected on the walls, sound effects and a host of props - such as, in Sir Pranceabout and the Dragon, smooth tin cans to represent armour, and a hair dryer against a piece of cloth to represent the dragon's breath.


As the story progresses, some children become animated, eagerly anticipating the next experience. Steve Murphy, their teacher, has now added music. It helps the children concentrate and to link music and story.

"We're giving them a blast of stimuli - and it helps us to see which senses they like to be stimulated by the most," says Murphy. "It's a great chill-out time for them."

In the Year 7 classroom, Grant Marland has turned the computerised stories into big books. At the lowest level, children can match cut-out pictures to those in the book, moving on to matching symbols. A few can read, and they match word labels to pictures. They can then be encouraged to build words into simple sentences, using yellow cards for verbs, orange for subjects and green for objects. "It's differentiation gone mad!" says Marland. "But it works very well and the children love the stories."

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