Glen Family Centre, which received a glowing HMIE report, is a good example of how mainstream pupils and those with additional needs are fully integrated. Douglas Blane visits
HM Inspectors do not lavish praise lightly. So when their report on Glen Family Centre, in East Renfrewshire, was published recently, staff were delighted to find half-a-dozen excellents and one outstanding - as well as too many very goods to count.
It would have been good to know in advance how favourable the report was going to be, says headteacher Joan Bradley. "I wanted so much for them to understand what goes on here and how much my staff put into it.
"They took me aside and told me to relax, it would be fine - and it was. They got what we are about."
It's a familiar story from schools and nurseries that specialise in children with additional support needs - that the inspectors understand the pupils and staff, and the nature of education in these places, better than mainstream colleagues or, indeed, education authorities.
So, although stressful, an inspection is also satisfying, allowing staff to engage with outside professionals at a deeper level than normally possible. "Attainment is important, of course it is," says Mrs Bradley. "But children have to be emotionally ready before they can learn."
Glen Family Centre is an unusual nursery. It is open from 7.30am to 6pm, including school holidays. It provides care, play and education for babies and toddlers, as well as pre-schoolers. It has a long history of working with youngsters with additional support needs, who currently form around half the roll of 75.
"It's the caring that makes the difference," says Sinead McCarrey, whose two-year-old son attends. "They support you as a family, rather than just working with the child. My older son went to a private nursery for a while. You had to pay a fortune and they weren't interested if you had a crisis at home. There was no flexibility, no getting to know you as a family."
This is vital, Mrs Bradley believes. "You can't look at a child in isolation. That wee one is maybe going home to a mum who hasn't slept for three nights. You have to be aware of what's going on in parents' lives. A diagnosis of autism can seem like the end of the world. They might have been pretty sure before but, when they get the diagnosis, it can still be crushing. You have to support them."
Family problems can often be picked up in the morning. "Maybe they've had a really bad night, or somebody's made a hurtful comment about their child. You can see it in their faces. We get them to come in, sit down and talk to us.
"Last year, one of our children died," she says, indicating a framed photograph on a neat shelf in her small office, of a girl with spiky hair and puzzled eyes. "That was hard. We went out to the home to support them all, and we brought her young sister into the nursery. The family trusted us to look after her."
In their report, inspectors highlight the respect that staff show children. "You might be only four and not yet toilet-trained," says Mrs Bradley. "But you should still be treated with respect. You should still get privacy when you want it."
The nursery's approaches to equality, fairness and inclusion are rated excellent by the inspectors. "We're completely integrated," says Mrs Bradley. "I defy anybody to come in and be able to separate my mainstream kids from those with additional needs.
"We have a policy of inclusion throughout East Renfrewshire. Parents feel it's good for their mainstream kids to learn with children who have additional needs. Some specifically ask for them to come here, so they can get that wider education. It's great how accepting even very young children can be of differences. They take other children for who they are, not for the difficulties they have."
The inspectors commend the curriculum at Glen Family Centre, which is "broad and well-balanced", with activities that are "stimulating and challenging".
"We thought particularly about boys and how to improve their literacy and numeracy," says Mrs Bradley. "So we developed the outdoor learning area with its lovely mud pool. Kids out there in their wellies will count how many puddles they splash in, how many handfuls of mud can fill a pail - where counting blocks on a desk wouldn't interest them."
Staff consult with children to ensure that their interests and concerns are taken into account when planning their learning, say the inspectors. This sometimes horrifies management colleagues, says Mrs Bradley. "'Children telling you what to do?' But it's not like that. Two of my staff, who are doing degrees at Jordanhill, came back with the idea. It's called big book planning. We know the skills we want them to learn but they drive the context. Planning used to be something you did to children - now we're doing it with them."
A Curriculum for Excellence is the goal, while the 3-5 curriculum is the starting-point, explains child development officer Joanne Fairclough. "Each day and each week, we do planning with the children and write it all down in the big books. It really motivates them. Because they're involved, they know what we're going to be doing - and if you don't get to some activity they like, they soon remind you."
Limited funding and resources mean that making Glen Family Centre work for all the children is a constant challenge, says Mrs Bradley. But there are rewards.
"It's great when children graduate from here and go on to mainstream, when their parents never thought they would. Or when they tell us they've gone to McDonald's for the first time as a family." She smiles. "I tell them: 'Don't mention the burgers, please. We're a healthy eating school.'"
Welly walk in the woods; www.ltscotland.org.ukearlyyearssharingpracticeoutdoorlearningglenaims.asp.