Most secondary schools claim to deal effectively with special needs pupils, but it is not unusual for children receiving extra support to find themselves in a ghetto. Brislington School, Bristol's largest comprehensive, is attempting to avoid such segregation by pioneering a culture of "special needs awareness" throughout the school.
Fed by 21 primary schools, Brislington, on the south-eastern fringes of the city, draws on some of the poorest areas of Bristol. Almost one in six of its 1,660 pupils is designated as needing special educational help. The school recently became the first in the country to receive a quality mark from the Basic Skills Agency for its approach to special needs.
Brislington, where last year 30 per cent of pupils attained five or more A-C grades at GCSE, has 11 special needs teachers, eight general assistants, and a dozen parent helpers. All have in-house training to instil awareness and skills in dealing with special needs pupils, especially when preparing resource material.
It's a labour intensive crusade, with three year 7, 8 and 9 pupils per member of staff. Sixth-formers receive help on a one-to-one basis for up to an hour, usually to deal with coursework problems.
The school is as open as possible about the programme, to overcome the stigma often associated with special needs.
There is close communication with parents. "To some, when their child was found to have special needs it came as a shock," says Teresa Hill, the senior teacher with responsibility for learning support. "But what is designated special needs in some schools may not be in others." Brislington's yardstick is that if children lack the basic skills to cope with the curriculum, then help is needed.
Under the new regime, all 11-year-olds were tested for reading, maths and spelling, and then individual work programmes for special needs pupils were established. Each was given a target of making improvements every six weeks. These younger pupils have half an hour's daily tuition, concentrating on basics using various resources, including computers.
One dyslexic student in Brislington's upper sixth, who hopes to study psychology and sociology at university, receives extensive support. "She has a great ability to link concepts," says Mrs Hill. "But she needs help drafting her coursework and can't take notes. She uses a Dictaphone and word processor. "
Some older pupils are reluctant to seek help, worried about the reaction of their peers. In the lower school, where the new culture of providing help where it is needed has taken a firm grip, there appear to be further benefits: truancy is declining and the school has permanently excluded only one pupil this academic year.