Building strong links between special and mainstream schools benefits everyone, says Margaret Sahin
here are few schools for "typically developing children" that welcome a visiting class of special needs pupils (all seven of them) on a regular basis.
As teachers of pupils with special needs we are aware that our children can miss out on seeing others their own age and "catching" good habits from those who find life less difficult. Because of this, we have been trying to link with other schools so the children can mix and learn from each other. Many schools are reticent, saying they have "plenty of children of our own with special needs" or "curriculum commitments", and there is a general nervousness about how our arrival would upset the equilibrium.
Thankfully, Chesterton Church of England Primary School in Bicester (a village school with four classes) does not have any such problems. Our mixed Year 1 and Year 2 class is welcomed once a fortnight to join Chesterton's for an afternoon. On hearing some of the difficulties experienced by our children, the class teacher said: "We have children who find it difficult to sit still, too." We are made to feel at home and, whatever the class is doing, they accommodate us into it.
A brief discussion between teachers beforehand is invaluable and it establishes points of contact to make the sessions accessible to all.
We have had several rewarding music sessions. One child, who is autistic and wary of new things, bounced excitedly up to the piano. When she had had enough she retired to her buggy, from where she watched the others and absorbed what was going on.
Dancing with ribbons gave another pupil the chance to concentrate on her ribbon and not on herself, which meant she could let go of her adult helper for a few minutes. Two children were also delighted to volunteer to join the line of 10 green bottles, even if one of them had to be reminded to fall down (which he does very slowly, as he does everything), while the second enjoyed his moment of glory so much that he lay on the floor even after the song was finished.
Our seven children are accompanied on these visits by four adults. There is plenty of support for the nervous, with someone always on hand for that urgent trip to the toilet (one girl always needs to go when she sets foot inside somewhere new). It's lovely to watch them blend in with the larger group and be treated as members of the same class by adults and children alike. On one occasion, everyone sat on the carpet listening to the teacher ask what pets the children had.
Our children are able to watch and imitate, putting up their hands and listening to the answers. Using Makaton (which mixes speech and sign language), I described the animals to my children, although "guinea pig" was a bit of a challenge. One child was good at understanding clear questions and answered: "rabbit, cat, goldfish." Another had a problem with categories. Not long ago, his answer to any question was always to do with Thomas the Tank Engine:
"What did you do at the weekend?"
"What colour hoop do you want?"
After listening to the array of pets mentioned, he eagerly put up his hand and then answered explosively: "Cow!" - well, nearly right.
Our visits are always magic and we go back buzzing with the normality of it all. There are gains for everyone: our children benefit from broadening their experience and finding they can cope (we are there as support), while Chesterton pupils learn how to accept and care for others different to themselves, and how to be part of an inclusive society. By working together, without fear or scorn, we're one step further along the road to achieving that goal.
Margaret Sahin teaches at Bardwell Special School, Oxfordshire