Giving the can-do children a helping hand

19th November 2004 at 00:00
The winners of this year's SQA awards, supported by TES Scotland, will be announced on Monday. They include an unusually high proportion of finalists with additional needs. Douglas Blane visited two - a school and a student - to find out what makes them so special

Some children have to put a little more effort and determination into gaining school qualifications than others and, clearly, some schools have to put a lot more planning and resourcefulness into supporting their pupils.

Corseford School in Kilbarchan, one of three independent residential schools run by the leading disability organisation Capability Scotland, has just won a centre of the year award - though it is still to be announced whether it is gold, silver or bronze - from the Scottish Qualifications Authority for enabling all its pupils, irrespective of disability, to achieve National Qualifications.

"If we have to jump through hoops to get them to NQs, we do it," says headteacher Marbeth Boyle. "The staff here are very ingenious in how they approach what looks like the impossible."

Children without speech who have to operate a wheelchair with their head need special arrangements to sit exams. While only some Corseford pupils contend with this level of difficulty, most are in wheelchairs and almost all struggle with fine control of their arms and hands.

In the post-16 unit, Allan, 16, demonstrates how he can, with a little help, measure lengths using a ruler for a maths exam.

"A member of staff holds the ruler and slides it over the page," explains Barbara Barr, the deputy head and SQA coordinator. "When it's in the position Allan wants, he tells them to stop, then he reads off the length."

It's a good example of the type of special arrangement that can be made by negotiating with the SQA to adapt learning outcomes for pupils with physical difficulties, says Ms Barr. "You have to make a good case because they're concerned, quite rightly, to maintain academic standards."

"A lot of Access units were originally set up for young people who may have cognitive difficulties but no problems physically, so they tend to be very practical. We have the reverse problem at this school. That means we often have to negotiate with the SQA about practical methods of assessment that are not suitable for our kids."

In particular, children who cannot perform a specific activity can be assessed on how, why and in what order its component actions should be carried out.

"It is very important that these kids can direct others to do things they can't do themselves," says Ms Barr. "When they grow up, many of them will have carers coming in, so they need to understand the process of, say, cleaning a kitchen surface and be able to give clear directions in an acceptable way."

Allan is working towards Standard grades in English and modern studies, having taken Standard grade science last year.

"I thought I would get Foundation level and was hoping I'd get General. I got both," he says, with a big grin. "Science isn't my favourite subject, but I wanted the qualification so I can go to college. I would like to study business."

Elaine, 16, is also aiming for Standard grades in English and modern studies this year.

"The English is quite complicated and we get a lot of homework," she says.

"I want qualifications so I can go to college and do a computer course.

Information technology is my favourite subject."

Corseford School has forged good links with local colleges where the school careers officer investigates courses and arranges links for interested pupils. In particular, all post-16 unit students attend Reid Kerr College in Paisley once a week.

"Coming from a small school like this (the roll is just 40) into a big college can be a culture shock for our pupils," says Ms Barr. "So we take them to Reid Kerr for half a day every week. It gives them college experience and a chance to see if they like it, and it lets college staff assess possible courses and facilities for the kids."

Along Corseford's school corridor, with the magnetic white strip acting like a tram rail for the smart wheelchairs that some pupils need, an early primary class is in session. Four pupils are in wheelchairs, five adults are beside them, and "Zip-a-dee doo dah ..." is belting out from the music centre.

"These kids don't have any speech," says the head. "None of them has independent sitting balance and none has good hand function. That's the starting point of our population in building to SQA qualifications."

The focus of much of the work with the children right through the school, but particularly in early primary, is achieving mobility and communication.

Technology is the key.

"It starts here with these big colourful switches called Big Macks. We record a message on them, Mum asks a child what she did at school, she presses the switch and it tells her," explains Mrs Boyle.

"It's a start on communication, develops their hand skills and gives the kids a can-do attitude, so that they are up for anything as we introduce them to more sophisticated technology that supports better communications.

"We don't want someone else speaking for them, which often happens if a child's speech is hard to understand. We want them to be able to say: 'No, that's not what I meant.' " Some Corseford pupils operate cognitively below their chronological age and follow the elaborated 5-14 curriculum through primary school to clusters of Access qualifications in upper secondary, says Mrs Boyle. But many are "bright wee buttons" whose difficulties, though severe and complex, are entirely physical.

Lewis, 8, attends both Corseford School and a mainstream primary each week.

"I'm here three days. Then a diary and that poly-bag with my work in it goes with me to the other school.

"I like this school," he says. "We use the computer for maths and language games, and I want to do something with computers when I grow up. I'll sit exams when I get to secondary school.

"It's hard work going to two schools. I like Friday best because you get a long rest on Saturday."

Subjects taught at Corseford include English, French, maths, science, social subjects, business studies, personal and social development, music and information technology. But the subject teachers form only part of the school staff. Speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and classroom assistants support and sometimes lead the teachers in helping pupils access the curriculum and gain whatever qualifications are within their reach.

"It's a question of teamwork," says Ms Barr. "The minute a child comes here, he or she is assessed by specialists. If children are sitting properly, beginning to use communication tools and being helped with whatever hand functions they've got, then they are ready to start accessing the curriculum.

"All that doesn't begin when they get to the stage of sitting exams. It starts when they first come to school and is built up from there. The big difference with mainstream is that the pace is slower. It has to be. If a child is struggling to say something, the teacher waits, the whole class waits."

Children at Corseford School have so many barriers to overcome that progress is bound to be slower, says Mrs Boyle. "But when our kids leave here, there are so many opportunities they can take up because all the groundwork has been laid.

"What they leave with is just the start of what they can go on to achieve, if they are on that path and are motivated.

"The qualifications improve their self-esteem, provide validation in the eyes of society, set them on the path to lifelong learning and are just so important to their parents."

Sometimes parents do not fully understand what their child has been doing at school until an SQA certificate comes through the letter box, ideally on the same day as the exam results of their brothers and sisters, says Mrs Boyle.

"When one mum bumped into a member of staff recently and told her that her daughter's qualifications had arrived, the tears were brimming in her eyes."

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