Inclusion pioneers put barriers out of bounds

24th July 2009 at 01:00
In the first of a summer series celebrating the diversity of British schools, Kerra Maddern reports from Benton Park High in Leeds, where a radical approach to bringing children with special needs into the mainstream has enriched the learning environment for all

Bilal sits in his art class, eyes shining with pleasure as he paints a papier mache skull. The scene might not seem extraordinary, but the Year 7 pupil's presence at Benton Park High School in Leeds is the result of almost 10 years' hard work by teachers who have made it one of the most inclusive secondaries in the country.

Bilal has special educational needs and if it were not for a pioneering unit at Benton Park, which acts as a special school within a school, he might have had few opportunities. Instead, the unit's pupils play a full part in school life as well as receiving specialist support.

Benton Park is one of the few schools in the UK that caters for children with SEN through to sixth form, and other schools are now considering emulating its approach.

It started back in 2002, when the city council was looking at how children from Green Meadows special school could complete their secondary education. It would have been easy to have estasblished a new special school on site and, unsurprisingly, this was the default position of the local government officers.

But Benton Park senior assistant headteacher Colleen O'Grady saw an opportunity to go several steps further. The money that would have been spent on new build was instead used to convert several rooms into "bases" within the school for the Green Meadows pupils. They have now become a part of Benton Park life and wear the school uniform.

When they start at Benton Park, the Green Meadows pupils have individual action plans that roughly follow the national curriculum. They can take GCSEs in PE, music, technology, art, science and French. In other subjects they work separately in the dedicated "bases". They can also take A-levels in PE, art and photography and go to college one day a week.

The pupils spend about half their time in mainstream classes, and all belong to tutor groups, attend assemblies and use the playground. Teachers say the whole school benefits from being inclusive. Other pupils are more tolerant and teachers are learning to cater for a wide range of abilities.

The debate about whether to include or not has never really dropped off the education agenda, and with a general election around the corner it might well become a major national talking-point.

Disability campaigners are calling for full-scale inclusion, but many teachers - most recently those attending union conferences - say this policy only works if supported by extra staff and funding. They feel some schools might find it impossible to cater for children who have complex needs but are able to attend because of government policies on parental choice.

Conversely, ministers are simultaneously attempting to opt out of EU charters so England can retain its segregated special school system.

At Benton Park, however, teachers say inclusion works - and this is backed up by exam results now that the second cohort to have spent its entire school career as part of the scheme is leaving.

Initially, Mrs O'Grady reassured parents who had chosen Benton Park for its strong academic record that the inclusion policy would not have a detrimental effect on their children's exam results.

"This approach creates confident children who have aspirations for the future, and you can't measure that on paper or through assessment tests," she says. "It also creates super-skilled teachers who are really creative. They choose to visit the students in their bases a lot, and it's little things like that which gradually build inclusion.

"It's also had an impact on learning styles of all the pupils. Our teachers now know how to better help our dyslexic pupils and others who learn more visually. What's great is we are a training school, so the students take this vision with them.

"When the (Green Meadows) children first came to the school, we didn't know how much teachers would get involved. But the leadership team made a point of going into lessons and the word of mouth generated from that was exceptional. Since then we have never heard any complaints and staff think what happens here is very rewarding.

"We developed the idea gradually with staff so they felt well equipped to deal with special needs. We were worried about how parents would react to taking on the special school pupils and the partnership, because we are seen as an 'academic' school with good results, but most are very supportive."

Teachers have also been moved by the progress shown by the Green Meadows pupils. For example, one boy was intimidated by flights of stairs, which he had never had to conquer while at special school. The same teenager now proudly moves between all floors.

Headteacher David Foley, who has chosen to adorn his office with artwork by Green Meadows pupils, says it is achievements like this - which might appear small but are in fact life-changing - that he is most proud of.

"It just shows we completely change their aspirations for the future," he says. "There is now no conscious acknowledgement that they used to go to a special school - they are just children who go to this school. It's the little things that make it so inclusive. For example, one pupil eats lunch with the site staff every day and he even chose to do work experience with them."

The unit has seven full-time support staff and two part-time higher level teaching assistants, as well as two teachers who concentrate on working with Key Stage 3 pupils. There are 25 children in the unit and this is expected to rise to 30.

Green Meadows teaching director Isobel Ericson believes the inclusion policy has helped her pupils find their place in the local community.

"You would find many older teenagers living around here who had no experience of meeting anyone with special needs and there was no socialising between the two schools, but now everyone is so much more comfortable."

In mainstream classes and at social times, the support staff use a policy of "invisible supervision", but the project is constantly evolving. Both the development of the sixth form and the extent of the freedoms the SEN students enjoy are up for discussion. Teachers are also keen for these pupils to develop the social skills they have gained at Benton Park, but as this would involve adult support workers accompanying them to the common room it might not be popular with other students.

Since "deep" inclusion such as this doesn't work for every child, Mrs Ericson and her staff spend a long time assessing pupils to see if they will prosper at Benton Park. Because of staffing costs, the secondary can take six Green Meadows children in every year group.

The first sixth formers in the unit left Benton Park last summer. Talks are ongoing with local further education colleges so in future the children can progress to other courses more easily, with the school's support reduced as they become accustomed to their new environment.

Green Meadows pupils are full of enthusiasm about their new school. Jordan Watts, who has been attending Benton Park for five years, says his favourite lessons are those with mainstream pupils.

"I felt a bit scared when I came here at first but I soon got used to it," said the 19-year-old. His friend 18-year-old Alicia Rywczuk, who is taking GCSE art and photography and wants to be a hairdresser, agrees.

"I like everything about this school, especially art club," she said.

Their higher-level teaching assistant Meryl Welbourne says she has had to learn to take a step back when the pupils join forces with the rest of the school community.

"We try to encourage them to show their personalities. I've seen the mainstream pupils benefit hugely when our children are part of the class," she says.

"Everyone benefits. The children went to primary school with other pupils, too, so they are able to stay with their friends, who always make an effort to speak to them."

This attitude sums up the philosophy of the place: Benton Park is a school that doesn't see inclusion as a barrier to academic excellence. Rather, it regards it a way of driving standards upwards.

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