Bouquet of the week

27th November 1998 at 00:00
Last weekend 11-year-old Katherine Morland went to a "sleep-over" with her friends from Year 6. She has a busy social life: camping with the Girl Guides, playing keyboards, choosing books from the library. Nothing unusual about that, except that Katherine has Down's syndrome.

She has been a pupil at St John's Church of England primary school in Kingston-on-Thames since the reception class, where she first met Geraldine Burgess. Geraldine was then a lunchtime assistant with special responsibility for Katherine and another child, Jack, who is autistic. As both children moved up the school, Geraldine became their full-time support assistant.

"She is exceptionally talented," says Isobel Morland, Katherine's mother, who nominated Geraldine for Bouquet of the Week. "She has this enormous understanding of the children and ability to differentiate work, combined with high expectations and patience.

"It means that Katherine is not just attending mainstream school - she's learning meaningful things every day."

Linda Palmer, head of St John's, says she can't imagine life without this highly valued member of the team. In practice, while the class teacher is closely involved in three or four levels of children's work, Geraldine is responsible for breaking things down further for Katherine and Jack. "If the class is doing fractions, we'll work on halves and quarters," she says.

She describes her work as being like that of an interpreter, translating what the class teacher wants. Sometimes she uses easier vocabulary but she is also encouraging the children to speak and think for themselves, and to gain independence through their learning.

"I do enjoy my job very much," she says. "Katherine and Jack couldn't manage the content of the curriculum without me, or someone like me." Another source of satisfaction is the effect of special needs children on the rest of the class. "The benefits work both ways," says Geraldine. "They've learned to be forgiving, tolerant and kind."

Her knowledge of special needs extends to Makaton, the signing system, which she teaches in the lunch hour. Geraldine and her husband are also foster parents for Kingston children with special needs.

"She's a modest person," says Ms Palmer, "with lots of hidden talents which we've discovered."

Bouquet of the Week is given in association with Marks Spencer. Names, please, on a postcard - and why - to Sarah Bayliss, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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