Four-wheel drive

7th November 2003 at 00:00
When pupils at a Nottingham special school heard their counterparts in Harare were carried home on people's backs or in wheelbarrows, they became curious about each other's disabilities and how to overcome them.

Nic Barnard reports

The first thing Aspley Wood pupils noticed when they watched the video from Zimbabwe was the wheelchairs. They seemedI wellI too big. In their own personally-fitted chairs, the Nottingham children were surprised to see students at Jairos Jiri special school in Harare wheeling themselves around in clunky, adult-sized models, or walking on ill-fitting crutches, or on no crutches at all.

Then there were the letters telling matter of factly about going home to their villages at the end of term: the children in Zimbabwe have to be carried the last few miles from the bus stop on a brother's back - or in a wheelbarrow.

"A bit unstable," says Kieron, in Aspley Wood's Year 10. "I like being on four wheels, not one."

Carol Sutton, the Nottingham school's deputy head and the maker of the video, says: "It's helped our children appreciate how fortunate they are."

Fortunate is not a word that first springs to mind at the small but lively school. Aspley Wood's 44 pupils, aged 3 to 16 , are physically disabled with associated learning difficulties, some severe. Many have communication problems. But for three years now, they have enjoyed a link with Jairos Jiri. This month the Nottingham school became one of the few special schools to win a British Council International Schools Award.

Many boarders at Jairos Jiri would attend mainstream school if they lived in Britain. Some have learning difficulties, but many are the victims of accidents or childhood illnesses such as polio. Amputations are common in a country where disease is widespread and medical services are poor.

The link between the two schools was fostered by Mundi, the global education centre at Nottingham University which is promoting wider links between the city and Harare. It has led to letter exchanges and visits: Carol Sutton and her colleague Julie Garcia travelled to Harare last year, and two Jairos Jiri teachers made a return trip to Nottingham in June.

That visit "really brought it alive" for children who often have only a limited sense of the wider world, says Carol Sutton. The children learnt some Shona - signs in the language are dotted around Aspley Wood - and tasted Zimbabwean dishes, a memory still strong five months on. Now they would like to bring some Jairos Jiri students to England.

The connection stimulated among the Nottingham children a welcome interest in other countries and languages, and provided fertile material across the curriculum. But it is hands-on activities that many children respond to best: music lessons - playing a large collection of African percussion instruments - are noisy and fun.

It has also tapped a rich vein of compassion. Pupils raised funds for a television set so their Harare pen-pals could watch the Christmas video they're making. The last one was stolen, to the disgust of the Aspley Wood students.

But it also offers these children a chance to express themselves. They've introduced Zimbabwean pupils to Makaton, the symbol language used by children with communication difficulties. Both sets of pupils are curious about each other's disabilities, and how they overcome them.

And there are some inspirational lessons. The video shows a child doggedly tapping out letters on an old electric typewriter using a head stick.

"Our children noticed how hard he's working. It's good for them to see patience and perseverance," says Carol Sutton. "Their children are a lot more resilient in some ways, a lot more imaginative in finding ways to cope, because they have to be."

She pauses."We work really hard to help our children be as independent as possible. But even so, we had to start questioning whether we sometimes do too much for them." There's food for thought.

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