Special school pupils at a new children's centre in York will be able to join their mainstream peers in before and after-school clubs, as well as holiday activities, while their families enjoy more respite care.
Hob Moor Children's Centre, which opened in April this year, is one of the first in the country to incorporate a special school and a primary school, in addition to a day nursery, after-school "fun club", Sure Start programme and family support team. Pooling these services on one site means that the centre can offer more "wraparound" and respite care to families who most need it.
"The inclusion debate has moved beyond people saying, 'let's close all special schools' and we are increasingly looking at opportunities for inclusion out of school," said Lorraine Petersen, chief executive officer for Nasen. "Inclusion is not simply about what school a child is attached to for their education, but it's about making sure that all children are part of the community. A child with special needs might, for instance, attend a special school for their education, but join a mainstream art club after school."
Karl Jarvis, headteacher of Hob Moor community primary school, said the opportunities for integrated provision at the new centre represented "a major movement forwards" for parents of children with special needs.
"Special school parents here have had a modicum of respite care up to now, but we have the potential for breakfast clubs, holiday clubs and so on, that will blossom in the future."
Staff at the centre are introducing special needs children gradually to out-of-hours provision. "It's a matter of introducing them individually and ensuring that colleagues have appropriate training," said Sue Williams, head of Hob Moor Oaks special school. But already her pupils are spending time in the day nursery and Fun Club, and one special needs child is now a member of the breakfast club.
Many special schools already try to offer some form of after-school and holiday activities for their pupils. But according to Lorraine Petersen at Nasen, the extended school agenda presents difficulties for children at special schools, often because of the set times when local authority taxis transport them to and from school.
The more inclusive option of a special school pupil joining after-school clubs at the mainstream school in their local community is also difficult, because mainstream staff are frequently not prepared for a child's special needs.
"To have the schools and services all on one site is ideal," said Ms Petersen. "They have all the professionals they need. Transport becomes less of an issue because, if the passion and the commitment are there, staff will find a way of making it work."
Darlington education village, which also opened in April this year, combines a primary school, a secondary school and a 2-19 special school under one roof and hopes to become a fully-fledged Children's Centre by 2008. At present the special school offers after-school activities, a youth club and summer schools for its pupils alone, but Dame Dela Smith, chief executive, said she hopes the village will begin to develop more integrated out-of-school provision.
"All the children are part of the community and we will try to build access to a full range of activities for them," she said.
There are currently more than 800 Sure Start Children's Centres around the country and the Government has pledged that by 2010 there will be one for every community. From September this year, 2,500 schools will be providing morning and early evening access to childcare and a range of extended activities.
Carol Runciman, City of York councillor and lead member for children's services, stressed that training has to be a priority when special needs children are included in out-of-hours provision. "Special schools have a repository of experience here which needs to be called on - but at the same time, they can't cope with endless visitors."
* Hob Moor children's centre: see page 8