'I want to make a difference in their lives'

1st October 2010 at 01:00
Being in a wheelchair has not stopped Laura Mackay managing her own classroom in her probationary year

Laura Mackay travels effortlessly around the classroom. Her electric wheelchair is infinitely manoeuvrable and she operates the joystick like a pro.

It was challenging at university, going out on placement and having to make do with the layout of other teachers' classrooms, she admits. But here, at Queen Anne High in Dunfermline, Ms Mackay has her own room as a history probationer. The pupils sit in pairs, with a large gap left between rows to allow her to check progress, offer help or get them back on task.

Ms Mackay suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, which has left her wheelchair-bound, with very weak muscles and no manual dexterity. Lifting anything heavy is a no-no. So tasks such as handing out folders, opening and shutting the door and switching on and off lights - which are inconveniently high - are divided up among pupils.

"They like doing things, so I let them do them," Ms Mackay explains matter-of-factly.

She has a full-time support assistant, Dawn Nelson, who is also on hand to help out. If there is an emergency, it is Ms Nelson's responsibility to ensure Ms Mackay gets out of the building, but she also supports her during lessons and helps her prepare.

"I'm a really slow typer, so it's quicker dictating to Dawn," says Ms Mackay.

Technology has a large part to play in her teaching. When Ms Nelson is not on hand, Ms Mackay can plan lessons on her computer, using voice- recognition software. In her classes, a smartboard is a must, and she has a microphone to project her voice. She would struggle to write on the whiteboard, so she has a tablet she can write on and the text is projected onto a board for the class to read.

This particular piece of technology was once the source of much confusion, when a teacher using Ms Mackay's classroom found writing starting to appear spookily on the board. Ms Mackay, who was teaching next door, hadn't realised the tablet was still hooked up.

Ms Mackay always loved school, and when it came to leaving Kinross High, she was torn between community education, becoming a youth worker and going into teaching. But thanks largely to the influence of her own "inspirational" history and guidance teacher, James Ferguson, teaching won the day.

"I want the kids to enjoy school. I also want to make a difference in their lives and help them develop, not just in my subject, but the skills they are going to need for life."

For most, the battle to get to university is won or lost on exam results. Ms Mackay had unconditional offers, but the struggle was far from over. The main obstacle was personal care.

"I'm from Perth and Kinross but I was going to be living in Stirling, so whose responsibility was it to pay? Also, I was still in education, but university is not compulsory education, so did they have to pay? It seems so stupid but it's just the way it is."

When George Reid, the then local MSP, visited Kinross High, he was ambushed by teachers pleading Ms Mackay's case. She was soon back on track.

But a year on from her first visit to Stirling University at the end of S5, the wrangling had not ended and she could not be accommodated on campus.

"I had to travel back and forth every day. I remember Mondays vividly. We had a history tutorial from 9 to 10am and then nothing until 5 to 6pm."

It was not until second year that she was finally able to stop commuting from Kinross.

"The studying was fine - it's always the other stuff that causes the problems. The education department at Stirling was fantastic and Mark Priestley was the most supportive adviser of studies I could have hoped for."

The admiration and respect are mutual. Dr Priestley, a senior lecturer at Stirling, describes Ms Mackay as one of the most remarkable young women he has ever met. Her drive and determination got her through university, he says, and she has improved services for future students, as both a disabled students' officer and an equal opportunities officer.

"Laura is a fabulous role model," he says. "The mountain she has climbed is one that people who don't face the same challenges fail at readily. This four-year course is stretching, demanding and takes a lot of effort and commitment. We are quite quick to put people out to grass who are not making that commitment or progress."

In teacher training, Dr Priestley stresses, there can be no watering down of requirements: "Everyone is assessed against the professional standard for initial teacher education. It would not be appropriate to adjust that."

Where the university will be flexible is concerning the input, rather than output: "We would make adjustments to what we provide in terms of support," he says.

Dr Priestley was Ms Mackay's ICT guru. He made sure that her placement schools had the technology she needed and were accessible. Even modern schools can be challenging, says Ms Mackay.

She has one plea: "If you are going to put a push button on a door or on a lift, put it at a reasonable height."

Supporting disabled students through teacher training is entirely appropriate, says Tom Hamilton of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, who is currently working on guidance for universities about reasonable adjustments they can make to courses for disabled students: extra time in exams, extra time for assignments or providing a scribe, for instance.

"Each individual application has to be considered on its merits," he says.

Generalised health standards for teachers and trainee teachers were abolished in Scotland in 2004 and the GTCS currently has 305 teachers on the register with a declared disability.

"Teaching should be a microcosm of society," continues Mr Hamilton. "It should contain people from all sorts of backgrounds with one thing in common - that they meet the standard."

Emma Seith emma.seith@tes.co.uk.

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