An educational feast for the senses

29th January 2010 at 00:00
The blind and partially sighted pupils at Exeter's West of England School and College rarely use Braille. Instead, they learn through a pioneering combination of physical activity, stimulation of taste and touch, and hands-on experience. And the results are impressive, finds Kerra Maddern

It is one of the most specialised schools in the country, where teachers help children imprisoned in the dark to unlock their potential. Parents beg for their children to be given a place, and experts turn to its staff after all else fails.

But there are no miracles at the West of England School and College for children with little or no sight. There is no doubt, though, that, thanks to incredible expertise, transformation is common. It is one of only a handful of schools in the country that cater for visually impaired children with hugely complex physical and other problems through to adulthood. It is a centre where every specialist a pupil might require is based in one place.

But giving these children all they need doesn't come cheap. Financial challenges facing all educational institutions because of public spending cuts are shared at this Exeter-based independent school and charity.

Fees are paid by children's local authorities, or the Learning and Skills Council if they are aged over 16. The recession has forced 47 councils to call for these bills to be frozen next year and some Greater London authorities have asked for a reduction. So far, cash-flow problems have not caused a reduction in the number of pupils being sent to the West of England, but the challenge for principal and chief executive Tracy de Bernhardt Dunkin and her staff is to make sure the school remains at the top of its game.

Key to this is specialisation, providing every therapy a child could need in the one place. Treatment then becomes part of education. The focus is on neurological improvements, inspired by research and practice in the US on brain damage.

Eyesight problems are hard to diagnose if children have other conditions, so doctors often just focus on physical issues. At the West of England staff devote their time to assessing what exactly pupils can see, which is essential so they can start the other side of their work - encouraging children to see.

Blind or partially sighted children often start to depend on other senses, when, in fact, much can be done to improve their vision. Pupils at the West of England are encouraged to use their functional sight as much as possible, and teachers try to inspire them with the confidence to do this. They are all trained in "visual awareness" so they can adapt lessons.

"We have a culture of staff being observant," says Ms de Bernhardt Dunkin. "They look for clues and this allows them to personalise as much as possible."

Around 80 per cent of children at the school come from the South West. The remaining 20 per cent who have arrived from further afield are there for various reasons, often because it is the only place that can cater for their serious disabilities but also because mainstream schools have been unable to help, or because their parents are unhappy with their education so far.

While some children follow a traditional classroom-based method of learning, specialist staff work individually with the most disabled children. They include 21 who are both deaf and blind.

A typical day will involve a heavy emphasis on the stimulation of senses. Those with little or no sight find it hard to be aware of their own body or gravity, so spinning sessions or lessons with a weighted ball are essential. Those with the most complex disabilities learn "oral skills", designed to stimulate their mouth and tongue to help with speech and eating. This takes place every day before lunch, with staff singing a song while applying pressure to different parts of the child's body.

This emphasis on physical movement is evident throughout the school. PE lessons are packed with exciting sports, with boxing, sailing and tae kwan do popular recent additions. These sports help children to control their bodies, and to keep still.

Teachers foster a competitive atmosphere, with the West of England teams competing in as many tournaments as they can. Particularly successful are the goalballers - a ball sport developed for blind people - and the swimmers. Sport encourages pupils to push their own boundaries and helps them feel part of the community.

Educating children with a visual disability is complicated, and a visit to the West of England will dispel any cliches about the blind. Braille is not used widely in the school, because its reliance on the hands doesn't help those with physical problems. Children have a choice of 20 GCSE subjects. This summer all those taking art got A*-C grades and the number of qualifications available is constantly rising.

"We've got teachers who really want to help children achieve," says head of school Nina Gerrard. "It's a real can-do approach, we don't use the word can't."

Before their arrival in the school, children are assessed for two days. This covers all their needs, from speech and language to physiotherapy and mobility, and allows teachers to see how they react to being in a classroom environment.

"Eyesight is rarely the only issue, but one of our strengths is that staff work as a team," says Ms de Bernhardt Dunkin. "This means children get a critical mass of expertise and a quick response.

"Everybody in the school knows what is going on. Parents are just overwhelmed by this speed. Often they have come from a situation where they have waited months for a diagnosis, and then they get no support when they do get it. Around 99 per cent have had to battle for everything."

The recent Lamb report highlighted how much local authority attitudes to special educational needs (SEN) varies - and how this has left parents having to fight for provision in some cases. West of England teachers witness this constantly, with many children only getting a place at the school following a tribunal because councils have originally refused to cough up.

This is all part of the debate surrounding the extent to which SEN pupils should be integrated into mainstream schools. Many independent special schools were set up in the philanthropic Victorian era. When the policy of inclusion - sending pupils with SEN to mainstream school - took off, their fortunes suffered. Now most only cater for pupils with the most specialist of needs, often combined with serious physical disabilities. This has led to a radical rethink for special schools.

The West of England is no exception, although its numbers have remained constant. One of its major selling points is that teachers are adamant that blind and partially sighted children should have careers, and much effort has gone into getting them into the workplace. For example, children now run mini-businesses and some study up to the age of 24.

Until the 1980s there was little provision for young adults at the school, but now the bigger age range means teachers have to cater for more complex needs, and be more creative.

Haydn Thomas, director of business development, is charged with expanding the vocational provision at the school. Its three charity shops, essential for raising money to provide extra services not covered by the fees, are now run as social enterprises with children working in them.

This experience counts towards their GCSE course in applied business. They can also study horticulture, woodcrafts and the care of Dartmoor ponies. Their produce is sold in the shops or online, to raise more money for the school. Coincidentally, this operation is now run by Andrew Roberts, a pupil at the school in the 1970s.

There are many other entrepreneurial events held to help the school. A recent auction of children's art raised thousands of pounds.

"It's amazing how many blind and partially sighted people don't go on to employment, despite the fact they do very well in school," Mr Thomas says. "What we are trying to do is to break this cycle through working with employers to educate them. Andrew is a very good role model.

"It's so important we challenge preconceptions. But we also have to create ambition through our high expectations of learners."

The school is run in a way that gives pupils valuable social skills. Children have formed management boards, and give their views readily and in an outspoken way.

It's clear they are the most important people at the school. The campus is full of their artwork - silhouettes in the garden, sculptures in corridors.

After they leave the school, most go on to other colleges, return home or get a place in a supported living complex. But recently the business focus has paid off. Pupils have got jobs at the Met Office, the Red Cross and with charities.

"It's important to us that these are 'real' jobs," Mr Thomas says. "We've worked really hard to build up relationships with employers. This has meant we've been able to train them so they have more awareness and realise how capable our pupils are.

"We've been reaching out and not just sitting here waiting for it to happen."

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