Campus built on tolerance

4th March 2005 at 00:00
A radical grouping of Catholic, non-denominational, mainstream and special schools on one site has created a learning community that bridges various divides, Elizabeth Buie reports

Keppoch campus in Glasgow's Possilpark area has been quietly breaking new ground since it opened in the autumn.

It accommodates not only a Roman Catholic primary school and a non-denominational one - working happily side-by-side and showing no sign of the sectarian tensions sometimes associated with Glasgow - but also a school for children with complex learning difficulties, a pre-5 nursery and a family centre which offers support for parents, daycare for youngsters aged up to 3 and holiday care for children up to 10. It is an ambitious mix of education provision and one that is possibly unique.

Attempts to introduce shared denominationalnon-denominational campuses in North Lanarkshire have been fraught with controversy, and there have been occasions when parents have been wary of moving special needs schools to the same site as mainstream schools for fear that the more vulnerable children would be overwhelmed. However, the signs at Keppoch are overwhelmingly positive so far, with the headteachers of all four schools convinced that integration has brought benefits to all pupils.

Liz Rankin, head of Broomlea, for nursery and primary children with complex learning difficulties, says her pupils are blossoming from contact with new friends in the mainstream schools.

Terence McKee, head of St Teresa's RC Primary, Maureen Barber, depute head of Saracen Primary, and Jean Lyle, head of Keppoch Nursery, are equally convinced that their pupils - who include children with additional support needs - have benefited by gaining insights into what it is like to have severe physical or learning difficulties.

"It has made them think more about their own behaviour and attitudes," says Mrs Barber.

"I have learnt that it doesn't matter what you look like, act like or speak like," one of the mainstream pupils commented in an evaluation of how the campus arrangements are working.

All five parts of the campus have their own space and arrangements, but the most interesting aspect of the campus is how well the areas of convergence work.

The dining hall is large enough to accommodate pupils from the four schools -although their arrival is staggered for logistical reasons - and it is striking how many of the mainstream pupils will quite naturally sit down next to a Broomlea pupil. Sometimes they will help the Broomlea pupil to eat, sometimes they will chat, sometimes they will communicate through Makaton sign language, which all the mainstream pupils have learnt as part of the integration process. (Some of them are even teaching the dinner ladies to use Makaton.) The main playground is shared by Saracen and St Teresa's primaries, with a few of the more able-bodied Broomlea pupils using it too. The staff say there have been no incidents of a denominational nature, just the usual rough and tumble that happens in playgrounds.

Keppoch Nursery and Broomlea use the sheltered courtyard play area.

Although just now they operate a timetable for using the play equipment, there are plans to allow children from the two schools to share it in future, on the basis of developmental age.

Broomlea also has a specially designed soft play room with soft toys, padded walls and big mats on the floor in case the pupils fall.

One of the most important initiatives is Playground Pals, a voluntary, rotational buddy system which pairs mainstream pupils with different Broomlea pupils each week. They may sit together at lunchtime, play together or help each other in music groups.

Contact with the Broomlea children seems to satisfy a need in some of the mainstream pupils, particularly those who have low self-esteem or are disengaged from learning. Many of them are flourishing because being a playground pal has given them a role or a skill to use.

Not all the children volunteer for the pals scheme. One P7 boy at St Teresa's Primary says: "Nah, I don't really want to do that. But I do like this school better because there's a better football pitch. You get a better game of football sometimes because there are more people to play with."

One of the teachers runs a joint football league, the schools have a joint campus song, and they held a joint Christmas carol concert. Once the library is up and running, it will be shared too.

The campus seems idyllic but building a community ethos requires effort.

"There are challenges," says Mr McKee. "There is no point in saying that it has all been smooth and easy. We have to work very hard and co-operate with each other."

However, all the headteachers agree that, even if making a multi-school campus work requires more time, more meetings and more organisation, the important thing is that it works for every child on the campus and they are all committed to that aim.

A significant factor in their success has been the time spent on planning.

In the run-up to the opening of Keppoch campus, all the staff at Saracen and St Teresa's primaries spent time on a staff linking programme at Broomlea's former site in Glasgow's West End. The authority arranged special cover to give them the opportunity to understand the complex learning, physical and medical needs of the Broomlea pupils (and the correct terminology to use in various situations).

"The Broomlea children's needs are so considerable that staff have to be very patient and understanding with them," says Mr McKee. "It is totally different from what we would be experiencing, although we are dealing with children with behavioural problems at times.

"I think our children have learnt the most from working and playing with the children from Broomlea."

Many of the pupils have profound and severe impairments and function at very early stages of development. They use a multi-sensory approach to access the 5-14 elaborated curriculum. However, staff have found that the approach can translate into teaching and learning opportunities for mainstream pupils, too.

When St Teresa's and Broomlea pupils worked together on a mini-enterprise scheme making Christmas wrapping paper, staff discovered that the mainstream pupils grasped some of the issues by following the Broomlea teacher, who was teaching through the use of symbols.

Ms Lyle adds: "Social and emotional development is so important in pre-5 education. Just the fact that the nursery children are playing and spending time and seeing children with complex learning difficulties is a huge learning experience itself."

For Ms Rankin, Broomlea's move has been a huge success, and not just because it has come from cramped premises to much better facilities, which include a hydro-therapy pool.

"In terms of the environment and what is provided here, it is excellent, but the most significant thing about it is that it will promote the principles of inclusion and that hopefully will create better attitudes and a more inclusive society," she says.

"We have the best of both worlds here. The children are in a highly specialised environment with all the specialised staff who are highly qualified, but within a wider social and educational environment. It has made a significant difference to them.

"They are within a total communication environment, where all the children are learning to sign. If you watch the children at lunchtime, they can be signing mainstream to mainstream or mainstream to Broomlea. There is no line of division. Our children see signing on a pure level and for them it is highly significant and motivating."

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