Hail our unsung special heroes;The Sweeney;School management

8th October 1999 at 01:00
When the school bell signals lunchtime, I dive towards one of our four dining areas, where I share the supervision with two colleagues. If I am detained by other activities, I know the dining room is in good hands, because of the faithful Norah Wilson from our team of special needs auxiliaries. Norah is a grandmother, and the university of life has taught her to deal with raucous pupils, grumpy bus drivers and exasperated parents in a practical, common-sense way that often eludes those with impressive academic qualifications. Over five years in Holy Rood, I have become increasingly convinced of the vital role support staff can play in the effective management of schools.

Norah and her colleagues are mainly engaged in helping pupils with significant needs to cope with the demands of mainstream secondary education.

Many of their charges would have been educated in special schools in the past. Integration has opened up new horizons of opportunity for these children, who require dedicated personal support to negotiate the school day.

The auxiliaries also contribute to interval supervision and lunch duty, as well as seeing pupils onto buses at the end of the day.

In assigning these whole-school duties to Norah and her colleagues, we are not leaving wheelchairs abandoned or anxious pupils bereft of classroom support. If we simply employed the number of auxiliaries to which we are entitled as a result of the byzantine mysteries of the annual audit of needs, we would have a dedicated team of six, wholly engaged in duties associated with special needs.

We have chosen rather to supplement this entitlement from the schools' resources to create a team of eight, all of whom make a contribution to whole-school duties. This prevents individuals from becoming closeted in a particular area, and allows for a coherent approach to supervision of pupils beyond the classroom.

There is no doubt that Norah and the auxiliary team have contributed to the reduction in exclusions we have achieved. The very presence of adults across the campus deters malefactors, and reassures children who are overawed by the very presence of 930 others.

Since auxiliaries' pay is such a pittance and all special needs auxiliaries are on temporary contracts, this arrangement is scarcely destined to blow the devolved budget. And it is a serious investment in pupils' safety.

The welfare room for those who are sick, or just sick of class, is next to the special needs area. This allows the team to take turns tending the wounded, and prevents stereotypical designation of any one auxiliary as "the nurse".

Frances Ratcliffe is our first bastion against late-coming and absence. She knows malingerers by name and is quick to phone parents if they fail to arrive. She combines a mother's sympathy with an official sanction to lure those who are no fans of education back to the classroom.

David Igoe is the sole representative of the male of the species in an exclusively female domain. Having recently returned from Australia, he is keen to develop a career in special needs, and is amassing valuable experience with the myriad disabilities, difficulties and illnesses which now present themselves in the mainstream secondary school.

There is undoubtedly a role for the non-teacher in dealing with pupils who cannot or simply will not behave themselves. There are times when the last thing a recalcitrant pupil needs is another teacher telling them to do what they refused to do in the first place. We can sometimes inflate problems, as we call in bigger and bigger guns to deal with a situation.

Norah takes the heat out of contentious moments by dealing with individuals differently. She would do well as a member of Sam Galbraith's new committee of inquiry on teachers' pay and conditions.

I can just hear her asking, "Collegiate activities? Does that mean keeping the teachers in?" Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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