How a school teaches its pupils to be independent

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Kersland in Paisley has made the shortlist of the TES Schools Awards for Best Special Needs School of the Year

It would be easy to get the wrong impression about a school whose headteacher is happy to be tied up and left in a garage as part of the term topic on crime scene investigation.

"People sometimes think we're just giving kids a good time," says Carol Jackson, whose Kersland School has been shortlisted for this year's TES Schools Awards. "But learning and teaching are the foundation of everything we do here. Curriculum for Excellence says children have to be able to apply the skills they learn. In special schools, that's our bread and butter.

"That's why we take the kids on outings into the community - wee jaunts to Asda or the People's Palace. They are enjoyable experiences but there's teaching and learning going on all the time they are out there."

The vision at Kersland is for all 73 children when they leave to be "as independent as they can be", she explains. "So everything you do, from Class 1 on, is aimed at that. A good example is the independence flat we have fitted out and have been using this session."

At this point there is a hesitant knock at the door and Mrs Jackson calls "Come in, you wee rascal". A little lad appears, surveys the office, gives a few brief responses and leaves, his curiosity satisfied.

"That's Matthew," Mrs Jackson says. "His speech isn't great but he's smart. He realises people have difficulty understanding him and is reticent with strangers. He speaks more in class. He's in our local drama group and has bags of confidence. He's a wee personality - they all are."

On the way to the secondary classrooms, Mrs Jackson meets more wee personalities, and tells a similarly-detailed story of their abilities, after sharing an upbeat chat with each of them. Young Jonathan is making a half-hearted bid for freedom, but stops when called and happily takes her hand.

In the classroom, beneath a vividly pointillist painting of a famous detective, half a dozen older children are working at computers and around a large table, supervised by Maureen Martin and Alison Beveridge. "Who helped us do Hercule Poirot up there?" Mrs Martin prompts the pupils.


"He came in from the college, didn't he, and we made the painting with little bits of .?"


"It's part of last term's topic," Mrs Martin explains. "We don't want to take it down, as we're so proud of it."

Curriculum for Excellence is deeply embedded at Kersland, with a different topic every term, each focused on at least two curricular areas, says Mrs Jackson. "Realistically, a lot of our kids will be at Early or First level right through school. So it's a great way of changing the context, keeping them interested."

This term's topic is Famous Scots, so they have been finding out about William Quarrier. "His first job was in a pin factory when he was .?"


"Then when he was eight, he had to work in a shoe factory, didn't he? But he had no shoes himself."

She holds up one of the differentiated reading books prepared by the teachers for every topic, based on Kersland's own reading scheme and core vocabularies: "Once you've got the topic, you sit down with other teachers and decide what you're going to do with it.

"You discuss how to bring in different subjects, such as maths, language, science. You unpack the outcomes and experiences. There is a lot of preparation, but it's amazing how easily it links together."

The new independence flat is a natural progression from what the children learn right through school, says Mrs Beveridge. "They can now produce a simple meal with the minimum of guidance. We do the whole thing together, from shopping to preparing the food, then cooking and eating it.

"Difficulties depend on the child. Handling money is hard for some. Others cope well with the whole thing. It is all about the individual."

The Duke of Edinburgh's Award is among the opportunities Kersland School now offers, says Mrs Jackson. "Four of our pupils with complex needs got their bronze last year and are working on silver. Another 12 achieved partial awards, and we presented at last year's Scottish Learning Festival."

The independence flat, when we get there, is disappointingly empty of pupils, but generously stocked with kitchen equipment, washing-machines, a red settee and a stylish wall clock. A wooden table and chairs, flat- screen TV and interactive whiteboard complete the decor.

Until now the flat has been used only by older pupils, says Katie Keenan, who teaches the seven to nine-year-olds. "But I'm going to suggest we buddy up with them in here. The older children are really good with the wee ones.

"Everything's special about Kersland. I love it here. The children are fantastic. They don't see anything holding them back. They can be shy when they first arrive, so you have to gain their trust, teach them to say `No', and at the same time nurture and encourage them.

"Carol is inspirational, very approachable with new ideas. I haven't actually mentioned my idea for the independence flat yet. But she'll be fine with it. She will do anything to improve the children's learning and help them become more independent."

Speaking of which, what was the outcome when Mrs Jackson was kidnapped and tied up in the garage? "I was there for 45 minutes," she laughs. "I was getting worried. I kept hearing scratching noises. But they rescued me in the end."


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