Helped by a good book
The Mary Russell school in Paisley is one of the largest special education schools in Scotland, serving 190 pupils aged between five and 18. There are 12 auxiliary staff whose work includes escorting children to and from school, supporting teachers in classrooms and playground and dining-hall supervision.
Two training sessions held exclusively for auxiliary staff at the Mary Russell school were part of a six-day series of training events I held during 1995-96 with all the staff, focusing initially on anti-bullying strategies and moving on to the development of a positive and practical ethos towards interpersonal relationships at school.
The phrase "special is as special does" encapsulates the atmosphere and culture that has developed within the school.
Auxiliary staff were an integral part of the initial training. However, three concerns identified their need for specific training. The job description for auxiliary staff - "to assist the headteacher and the teaching staff to meet the needs of pupils" - is wide, giving little practical direction.
The school recognised that auxiliary staff were inextricably part of the whole school culture. After all, auxiliary staff are involved with pupils throughout the school day.
About 25 per cent of the school day at the Mary Russell school is break-time. "Play" is therefore one of the most prominent components of the school curriculum. Play has also been identified by child psychologists and developmental theorists as having a crucial role in the social and cognitive development of children. Yet the informal, less structured part of the school day has received less attention than the more formal aspects of the curriculum, and has devolved to unqualified, untrained staff.
Auxiliary staff need to understand what is happening in the playground. In their many roles they may get so caught up with being mindful of things "going wrong", watching out for bullying or children being hurt, that it is sometimes hard to see beyond these concerns.
However, for play to be understood and credited with its proper place, one of the first tasks is to take stock of what is really happening in the playground and then to be clear what the school would want to see happening. How is the ethos of the school to be conveyed and expressed in the playground?
The training sessions focused on the many roles of auxiliary staff, and the support systems required for them to undertake their tasks effectively. As part of the training process, we produced a manual of good practice. This addressed roles and tasks, as well as what might be the most important strategies, roles and tasks for auxiliaries to concentrate on to contribute most effectively to meeting the overall educational, social, emotional, physical, recreational, and spiritual needs of children. The manual also gave guidelines on play.
The auxiliary staff emphasise that this manual does not automatically ensure the delivery, in practice, of a positive school ethos, nor does it detract from the need for training - in fact quite the opposite. The range and importance of the roles and tasks required of auxiliary staff as detailed in the manual provide evidence both for the re-evaluation of the importance and status given to the post of auxiliary and the need for a clear programme of in-service training.
Auxiliaries need INSET to give them an understanding of child development, an understanding of different strategies for promoting positive behaviour and addressing or dealing with negative behaviour, skills in stimulating play, counselling skills, groupwork skills, an understanding of common learning difficulties and syndromes, and competence in basic first aid.
The manual outlines the nature of the job as it is understood at the Mary Russell school for existing and future teaching and auxiliary staff and it indicates the type of training that auxiliary staff believe is essential so that they can contribute, as professionals, to meeting the needs of vulnerable children.
The manual is not intended to be used wholesale as a blueprint for schools. For the staff at Mary Russell school it is a living document, needing constant reassessment and revision. As their practice evolves so too must the manual if it is to retain value. In return, the manual can prompt the need to reassess practice and shun complacency.
Kevin Brown is a trainer and author. Copies of Special Is As Special Does - A Manual of Good Practice: Guidelines for Auxiliary Staff are available, price Pounds 3.50, from Kevin Brown, Uttershill House, Penicuik EH26 8LT, tel: 01968 678985.