Karen Gold visits a mainstream primary where conductive education helps children with cerebral palsy take a full part in school life
Every time he shifts his weight, Pranav's clasped hands fly up to his chest. He stands quite sturdily, legs akimbo, head thrust forward to prevent him falling back. But it's the hands that are giving him most trouble.
"How many seconds can you stand for, Pranav?" asks his Hungarian-trained teacher, Zsusza Szabo. Pranav, who has no articulate speech, points to 20 on the small number board beside him. He stays upright, hands pumping up and down, while she counts.
Then she sets out pairs of wooden chairs, back to back, to form a narrow passage. To walk between them, Pranav can steady himself on their railed backs. But there is a wedge-shaped protruding foot at the bottom of each chair leg, so he will have to lift his own feet if he is not to trip.
"Put your hands in your pockets like a big man, like a real man," says Zsusza. Physically steadied and mentally uplifted, Pranav takes several steps unaided towards the chairs, walks between them, and takes several more free-range steps before reaching the classroom table. He leans against it, panting.
This is conductive education, a system of physical exercises invented by Hungarian doctor and teacher Andreas Peto, to enable children with cerebral palsy to learn to walk. In Hungary, conductive education is provided for 40 hours a week in residential schools, where parents often live with their children, and where the classroom is the site of simultaneous physical and mental activity, all of it guided by the same individual "conductor".
Twenty years ago British parents campaigned and fund-raised to send their children to Budapest for conductive education. Today in Britain, around 35 private special schools provide some form of it; there are weekend, Easter and summer courses offered by these schools and by charities like SCOPE, and some families even persuade local authorities to fund it through their child's statement of special needs. What is unusual about Pranav and Zsusza's session is that it is taking place in a mainstream state primary school classroom. Priory School in Burnham, near Slough, is probably the only state school in the country currently offering conductive education by Peto-trained conductors to its disabled pupils, according to headteacher Jacqueline Laver.
Among Priory's 737 pupils are 39 with physical disabilities who split their time between a resource unit and mainstream classes. Some are capable of following an entire mainstream curriculum, and they do - apart from regular sessions in speech therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and, for some, conductive education one day a week in a private Aylesbury special school. Frustrated with their children's missed lessons and limited physical progress from intermittent conductive education, several Priory parents formed a group called Dynamite Kids, found a commercial sponsor - the Berkshire arm of US giant Computer Associates - and, together with the school, drew up a plan to bring conductive education into their children's classrooms. In November 2000, they commissioned a conductor from Hungary to do a feasibility study. There were obvious problems. Where and when would conductive education happen? Would it distract other children or the class teacher in ordinary lessons? Would it clash with other therapies? Who would pay for it?
That last problem was temporarily solved by a donation from Computer Associates and fundraising by its employees, who adopted Dynamite Kids as their charity for 2002. Slough local authority was more cautious: the cost of conductive education for 25 children at Priory would probably be no more than sending 25 children to Aylesbury, says Jacqueline Laver. But at present Slough only pays for six: "We're working on the LEA."
After three years hammering out details, in September 2003 Priory appointed Zsusza and an assistant conductor plus two extra learning support assistants, ordered a temporary classroom which will be central to the school and equipped as a gym, and launched into the experiment.
Each morning, the conductors work with around 12 key stage 1 and nursery children, while the lsas, who are being trained in conductive education principles, support the disabled KS2 children. The KS2 children have early morning and after-school exercise groups and individual sessions in the afternoons. Parents come in to watch, so they can learn exercises and games to use at home.
In less than six months, says Jacqueline Laver "the impact on the children's mobility has been phenomenal". Pranav took his first ever steps out of his electric wheelchair. Other children have learned to sit in an ordinary chair, to feed themselves independently, to hold a paintbrush and write their name with a pencil.
Conductive education at Priory is still in its earliest stages, says Zsusza. But the physical improvements, and the changes in the way adults and children regard disability, are real: "Probably I think a little bit too much has been done for these children. People don't want to ask too much from them, because maybe it's going to be too hard. But when they see what they are capable of, they expect that throughout the day. You have to think ahead of the child and the capability that child has at the moment."