The invisible school;Inclusion

23rd April 1999 at 01:00

Springfield School for pupils with severe learning difficulties in Witney, Oxfordshire, has been building links with mainstream schools for over a decade. "After the Green Paper came out, we felt that whoever had written it was rather out of touch with what was happening. We had been integrating pupils for years," says Christina Niner, the headteacher.

Springfield's extensive work with the mainstream started in 1989, when Ms Niner approached a local primary school and asked if she could place three pupils there for three days a week with a Springfield teacher. "Pupils with severe learning difficulties can be completely isolated in a mainstream school. Too often their classroom assistant can act as a barrier to integration," she explains.

"Sometimes there's too little focus on the progress of the pupils with special needs. Success is measured more on how well the children have survived than on the skills they've acquired."

Christina Niner has seized every opportunity to develop inclusion. Springfield now has 54 pupils attending mainstream schools, supported by six teachers and 18 classroom assistants from the special school.

Ducklington primary school, for example, now has 10 fully integrated children with moderate to severe learning difficulties, supported by one Springfield teacher and 2.5 classroom assitants. It is now impossible to pick out which children were originally from Springfield.

Staff at Ducklington were apprehensive at first, but once the children were there, they developed expertise and now don't want them to leave. But the enthusiastic leadership of Ducklington's headteacher, and good training and support from Springfield, were crucial.

At West End School, a comprehensive which now has 14 Springfield pupils, it took staff about 18 months to feel comfortable with inclusion. "Staff felt threatened at first. They were frightened we were going to place pupils in their classes without adequate support. But suddenly we were overwhelmed with approaches from mainstream teachers offering places in their classes to our pupils."

In 2001, the 36 pupils and staff still based at Springfield will move to new premises in a purpose-built mainstream primary, sharing the staffroom and main corridor. The trail was blazed at West Witney primary school. When it opened in 1991, Springfield's nursery class and staff moved to an integrated nursery at the new school.

There are now 30 Springfield pupils aged 3 to 11 at West Witney. They all mix socially with the mainstream pupils and join mainstream lessons where appropriate. The Springfield and West Witney teachers go through the term's work in advance to pinpoint any differentiation needed. Because they share the same building, they can easily pool ideas and resources.

Springfield receives an extra pound;22,000 per year to support integration, which does not cover the cost of the enhanced staffing and training needed. The school spends 96 per cent of its budget on staff and raises funds for the vital extra equipment and opportunities disabled children need.

Howver, Christina Niner believes that some children with very severe learning disabilities will always need separate provision. "There are children whose medical needs and behaviour could not be coped with in mainstream schools," says Springfield's headteacher.

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