Joan Armatrading

25th December 1998 at 00:00
In adult life I've got to know a lot of great teachers who make learning an adventure but when I was at school no one single teacher really excited me. Lately I've been particularly inspired by the teachers at the Paces Centre in Sheffield. They work with children with cerebral palsy and the centre is linked to the Peto Institute in Budapest, Hungary.

I had heard about what they were doing there in the Eighties - I'd seen it on television. I thought it was just fantastic and the results they were getting seemed so impressive. Then, out of the blue, Paces wrote to me. They asked me to be their champion, which sounded like a nice thing to be.

When I went to meet them for the first time, I wanted to help but I never thought that I would get quite so involved. The head of school is a marvellous teacher called Trisha Monteyn. She works very closely with all the children and links the conductive education programme, which has been developed in Budapest, to the demands of the national curriculum. She teaches the children over 11; there is another teacher called Helen Pemberton who takes the younger children and also works closely with their parents.

Paces is aiming to create Britain's leading centre of excellence for children with cerebral palsy. It's not therapy, it is an educational programme, and the whole thrust is active learning. The centre needs more equipment and I wanted to help with that because Trisha and Helen and the conductors, who have come over from Hungary, are all so dedicated, very committed and determined to make it work. The children have benefited hugely and so have the parents. I've got to know them all - it is so nice to be able to do that. I love children, although I don't have any of my own.

Some of the children have very poor communication and mobility skills while some are surprisingly good. The oldest is Sarah. She is 16 and needs constant attention, day and night. Then there is Gemma, who is eight. She is very talkative and wanted to know if I had been to Skeggy [Skegness] and was that why I was so black - because I had spent a lot of time on the sands! They are quite shy at first, but when you get to know them they will show off for you.

There's a boy called Adam who seems to have poor communication skills and you think that it is going to be difficult, but there is communication there in a different way. There is another little girl, aged eight, who for a long time could not say "I like bananas", which are her favourite food. After she had worked with the conductors she was able to say it and consequently her mum has ended up with a fridge full of bananas because now she asks for them all the time! It's so exciting for them, and Trisha and her team are doing a fantastic job. I can't praise them highly enough.

You could easily give all your time to the centre because the work they are doing is so inspiring, but I'm concentrating on raising people's awareness of the centre. The staff suggested that I put together an album of lullabies to raise money, but I preferred the idea of putting together an album of songs from different artists. So I asked Tina Turner, the Cran-berries, Mark Knopfler and Jools Holland and lots of other people, who all said yes as soon as I told them about the centre. A lot of the artists have children themselves and are very empathetic; I keep them all up to date about what's happening there.

The centre needs quite basic things, such as ladder-back chairs. When the children start off, many of them can only crawl and the teachers use the chairs to help them to walk. They start off on that first rung and, as they get better, they get more and more erect. They are literally climbing the ladder of success; the reason the charity is called Paces is that it takes things one step at a time.

The money from the album I have put together won't just go into some pot; it will buy these chairs and help Trisha Monteyn to recruit more conductors. At the moment all the teachers train in Budapest, but the aim is to build up the centre to the point where they can train people here.

It is a huge upheaval and expense for families with children with cerebral palsy to go all the way to Budapest. So it's wonderful to have the Paces Centre in Sheffield. I know the therapy works because I've seen so many successful cases. The centre has become very important to me because I can see what it is doing for the children and the difference it is making to the parents.

Joan Armatrading was born in St Kitts in the West Indies and came to Britain when she was eight. She made her first album in 1972 when she was 22, and hit the Top Ten in 1976 with 'Love and Affection'. She has continued to make albums, the most recent of which was 1995's 'What's Inside'. She has just compiled 'Lullabies with a Difference' with BMG Records, a collection of songs featuring a range of celebrities, all profits from which will go to the Paces Centre for children with cerebral palsy. She was talking to Nigel Williamson.

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