Almost all staff at Sunfield school pursue practical research projects that benefit them and their pupils. Diana Hinds reports
Established in 1930, Sunfield had a distinguished history of providing education for children with severe and complex learning needs long before legislation in 1971 made this a statutory requirement.
It was here that Nordoff and Robbins pioneered music therapy - still a feature of Sunfield's work with autistic children - and that Michael Wilson, Sunfield's founder, developed colour light therapy as a medium for interaction with these children.
Sunfield is more than a school. It is a charity offering year-round residential care, as well as a range of psychological and therapeutic services, family support centres, outreach and assessment, and a thriving professional development centre, serving mainstream and special schools.
It is set in 58 acres of parkland overlooking the Malvern Hills. The land is studded with mature trees and clumps of rhododendrons, and there is a bluebell wood and small farm.
Last year, Sunfield became the first school to open a research centre, the Sunfield research institute. The research involves staff, parents and children.
Sunfield is home to 75 children and young people, aged between 6 and 19, all with severe or complex learning difficulties. The majority are profoundly autistic. By the time they arrive at Sunfield many of these children have already failed to thrive in two, three or four schools, and their family situation may be at the point of breakdown.
"In terms of inclusion, we keep these children in the education system," says Professor Barry Carpenter, Sunfield's principal and chief executive.
"We can be responsive to some of society's most complex children."
WORKING WITH THE FAMILY
One of the distinctive features of Sunfield's approach, Carpenter believes, is its emphasis, in recent years, on working in close partnership with the family. Carpenter is the father of a child with Down Syndrome, and author of Families in Context (1997).
"It would be easy for us to wave goodbye to families, but when a child leaves here, at 19, all the child has is family. If we don't keep in touch some are not going to be able to advocate for their children," he says.
As well as weekly letters (or pictures) sent home by the children, and regular open days, Sunfield runs an active siblings programme, and workshops for parents, and grandparents. Families - defined in the broadest sense - can come and stay at Sunfield in one of its three comfortable family centres. All Sunfield staff working with children take a one-day course on talking and listening to families.
"We enrol families at Sunfield - we don't enrol children," says Carpenter.
"It's about harnessing all the resources of the family in a shared love for this complex child, who is a part of their family."
Because of the complex needs of its pupils, Sunfield has the opportunity "to shine a spotlight into crevices" that other schools cannot access, says Carpenter. This yields a practical, evidence-based type of research that "helps us find answers that feed back into practice".
Despite advances in the understanding of disability, many questions remain unanswered. Carpenter wants to see practical research that "empowers practitioners as researchers".
Rowan House, one of ten residential houses in the grounds, is a case in point. It was designed for young children with autistic spectrum disorders on the basis of research into engaging their feelings and interest through colour. The work was carried out by Dr Diana Pauli, daughter of Sunfield's founder.
In Rowan House the walls are painted in soft pinks and purples because trials showed these colours were calming to children with autism. Care staff were asked to find out the children's likes and dislikes. The result is wide, slightly curved corridors (children with poor visual acuity find large numbers of right-angles difficult) and sound-proofing in the ceilings (because high noise-levels can be painful).
Part of Teresa Whitehurst's job as research and development officer at the research institute is to build a culture where research is accessible, so it is not seen "as something abstract, operating in a vacuum, but as real and grounded in everyday practice".
Families can be involved, too. A recent project by Carpenter and Whitehurst looked at how families viewed the induction process at Sunfield, and involved families and members of staff in setting the interview questions, and analysing the results, alongside the principal researchers. One finding was that siblings wanted a greater part in the induction process, and Sunfield is now producing a guide for brothers and sisters.
Another project led by Whitehurst focused on mainstream pupils' perceptions of inclusion and the support they felt they needed through a programme of theatre work with Sunfield pupils. The responses of the Sunfield children demonstrated a need for sustained relationships with mainstream pupils, and Sunfield is now implementing peer mentoring with sixth-form volunteers from nearby Haybridge high school.
Virtually every member of staff is involved in a piece of research. For instance, Brian Cowley, a part-time counsellor, is submitting for publication a paper on counselling young people with Asperger syndrome using non-verbal techniques.
Clare Harris, a senior teaching assistant, joined Sunfield seven years ago as a cleaner. She is now in the final year of a BA in special education with University College Worcester, and is carrying out research on play in the classroom.
"The research aspect helps me with my normal working day," she says. "You learn more: you pick up signs and you learn to translate them, rather than just seeing them, so you improve your own practice and the children's education."
Sunfield research findings often develop into training courses run by the professional development centre, and things that come out of training can become research topics. "Research is part of staff's continuing professional development," says Carpenter.
Teresa Whitehurst says the research "gives us flexibility to look for answers in a creative way. We are seeing more complex children, and we can't sit on our laurels. This approach has made us thriving and thirsty for knowledge."