Sight-impaired children from London took off to Cyprus for a week of fun and new experiences. Shelagh Webb went too
A Greek Cypriot bishop is not used to having a pair of hands suddenly reaching up to eagerly explore all the features of his face. But Bishop Chrysanthos quickly recovers his composure, accepting graciously that this is the only way that the 10-year-old blind boy can "see" him.
Much of this week in Cyprus is like that. The blind and partially-sighted children from south London schools experience and learn about a multitude of new things, from what it feels like to go up in an aeroplane, to picking ripe, juicy oranges in a grove in the mountains.
But perhaps those who learn and experience the most are the sighted members of the party and all those people to whom the children come into contact. This is an example of integrated learning - including a group of 18 blind and partially-sighted children, a number of sighted Greek community school children, members of staff from the schools, a few parents and the school doctor. (Some of the children have serious medical conditions, and two are in wheelchairs.) In fact, if you were looking for something which would bring to life all those fine words about inclusive education in the Green Paper Excellence for All Children, you would need go no further than this project or, for that matter, Lambeth's Clapham Park School and outreach support service, which initiated it.
The school has about 30 children and supports another 85 either full or part time mostly in mainstream schools. As in many schools in inner London, the children come from a range of countries including Nigeria, Mauritius, Thailand and Jamaica.
The week in Cyprus is somewhat hyperactive, visiting and working with children from the Cyprus school for the blind, swimming in the luxurious hotel pool, dressing up for carnival night, a performance by the children of Oliver! with a superbly acted lead by a blind boy (who doesn't want to be an actor, but intends to be an artist). There is also lighting of candles and listening to music in the 12th-century Ayios Neophytos monastery, Greek dancing, with other hotel visitors, picnicking on the beach and, finally, preparing an exhibition of the artwork and pottery which the children have completed during the week.
Throughout this programme the most impressive thing about the children is their courageous independence: the children from the Cyprus school sitting neatly and securely on a wall while the visiting children dart precariously about the edge of the harbour throwing stones. ("Hey! Watch where you throw that, the water's over there.") Being allowed space to experiment and take risks is clearly an important part of every child's development but it is critical for children with sensory impairment, who may understandably often experience over-protection at home and in the community.
Marvin, for example, who can only see objects when they are held up very close, is maybe the most nervous and reluctant when a fisherman encourages some of the children to feel what it is like to sit in a gently rocking boat - but it is Marvin who then excitedly describes the experience to anyone within earshot, and spends the whole lunch time trying to work out how the boat works and asking questions. What would happen if the fisherman fell out? How does he tie the boat to the dock before getting out?
Twelve-year-old Matthew, who became blind quite suddenly two years ago, is enthusiastically picking oranges from the lower branches of the trees, turning his shirt tails into a large extra pocket and then insisting on walking back up the hill without his stick in order to free his arms to hold his newly acquired bounty, even if it means he encounters a couple of bumps and falls on the way.
Both the parents and Clapham Park's impressive headteacher, Barbara Raybold, (who plans to take many more children on next year's trip) believes this year's children have gained a "measurable increase in confidence, self-esteem and independence".
The pound;12,000 cost of the project was funded through partnerships with business organisations here and in Cyprus, the National Blind Children's Society and money raised by parents and contributed by staff.
Shelagh Webb is Lambeth Labour spokesperson for education