Exchange and learn

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
What happens when high-achieving 10-year-olds nurture a friendship with children who have learning difficulties? The answer, reports Virginia Makins, is that everyone gains

Little Heath is an over-subscribed, grant-maintained primary school in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. The 10 and 11-year-olds in Year 6 have excellent manners, impeccable uniforms and good prospects. A 25-minute minibus ride away, Oakleigh School in Barnet caters for children with a range of special needs, most of them severe. Red Class at Oakleigh has five to seven-year-olds who, despite some complex disabilities, are progressing through developmental milestones, albeit slowly. Their teacher, Sue Tanton, calls them "our accelerated learners".

Two years ago she went to her daughter's class assembly at Little Heath. The theme was storytelling. It ended with "We're going on a bear hunt."

"I wish my class could see this," she said afterwards to the Nicky Hardisty, the Year 6 teacher at Little Heath.

"Bring them along and we'll do it for them," was the reply. And so began an exchange between the schools that is still growing.

Both teachers wanted a strong educational focus to the link, not just a social one. They decided literacy was a good one. Small groups of Little Heath children got to know pupils from Red Class, learned about their interests and produced books for them. They also learned Makaton signing to help them communicate with the Red Class pupils.

The primary school children admit that writing a book is not easy. They had to shape their elaborate ideas to the abilities and language development of Red Class, as well as to the targets of pupils' individual education plans. This meant they had to pay attention to language structures and stylesof communicating.

While ideas were no problem - the Year 6 boys and girls came up with tactile surfaces and lift-up flaps for pictures - they found it harder to translate their ideas into finished books. "The making part was the worst," some children said. But the results have been impressive, and older Red Class children still enjoy reading "their" book from last year.

The exchange is still developing. More Little Heath staff are getting involved. The head, Cherry Foster, says: "It is good for our pupils' literacy, but it also brings out attitudes about caring and sharing which can often get knocked on the head these days." Kathryn Holdsworth, this year's Year 6 teacher, agrees: "It's helped the children to think outside themselves about other people."

The special school children benefit greatly . One boy with acute attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who has recently come off medication, behaves very well when he visits Little Heath. The primary pupils' use of Makaton has boosted Oakleigh's use of it. Sue Tanton recalls a session earlier this year when Year 2 and Year 6 from Little Heath and Red Class joined in. "Sixty-eight children, all singing and signing together. That was real communication," she says.

TWO-WAY TRAFFIC

When the children from Little Heath primary school visit Oakleigh, they enjoy the special equipment, such as the sensory room or the soft play room (main picture), where the boys can slide spreadeagled down slopes with a Red Class child. Sharing a snack with Red Class (bottom left) provides a chance to cement relationships.

When the Red Class children, in their turn, visit Little Heath, the primary school pupils read stories to their charges (below). They also sing and play music together (far left). This year they are planning a joint concert at the end of the summer term. One of the Oakleigh parents, a musician, is bringing a group along to lead the music, and the Little Heath sports coach is helping with dancing.

The exchange is one of several between Oakleigh and local schools - the special school teachers are determined to keep their children, however disabled, in contact with the mainstream.

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