Learn to play, learn to say

19th September 2003 at 01:00
An infant school with its own language department is one solution to problems of speech impairment. Diana Hinds reports

Six children from the reception class are playing with toys on the carpet. Two boys are absorbed in a train set, one girl with small models of divers and ships full of treasure. One gets out Playdoh, another two clatter plastic food and pans in and out of a toy oven. Mostly these children do not engage with each other. When they do, they tend to behave crossly because they have not learnt to share or take turns. Some have not learnt to play.

The teacher and assistant gently cajole them. "Remember, we have to say 'Janie's go', then 'Stephen's go'. You can say: 'You can play with me, Janie.' " This is a play session in the language department at Elmtree infants school, Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Four of the pupils have been identified as having specific language impairment. Two are mainstream children, who teachers feel could benefit from more attention in a small group. But at the end of half an hour, all six return to the reception class next door, where they spend most of the school day.

This is a model of part - or near-total - inclusion for children with special needs, practised in several primary schools in Buckinghamshire. Its success at Elmtree is one of the reasons that the school gained a glowing Ofsted report in January this year and why Liz Seddon, head of the language department, won an OBE for services to special educational needs teaching in June 2001 - this followed the national teaching award for SEN in 1999.

The alternative for children like those in Elmtree's language department would be either a special school or regular sessions with off-site specialists, in a clinic or language unit. Instead, Elmtree has brought its specialist provision right into the hub of the school, so that language-impaired children mix with their mainstream peers for almost the whole day, but still receive the extra support they need. Liz Seddon insists that hers is a "department" and not a "unit", since "unit implies that you are away from everyone else". These children, quite definitely, are part of the school.

Seddon started in primary, became a special educational needs co-ordinator, and moved to Elmtree seven years ago. She has a postgraduate diploma in specific language difficulties, and clearly loves her job: "It's really nice to have something new to do after classroom teaching for 15 years. I am thrilled with coming to work every day. Seeing the progress children make is very satisfying - children with difficulties have to put so much effort in."

Working as a team is critical to this operation. The language department consists of Liz Seddon, Nikki Dutfield, senior speech and language therapist, and outreach therapist, Lilo Seelos, together with four of the 14 classroom assistants.

The wider team is the whole school - from class teachers to lunchtime supervisors - all of whom receive training in specific language difficulties, get the chance to observe the work of the language department, and learn to use Makaton sign language. Everywhere one goes in this school, one sees staff making their meanings clear with a bit of Makaton - whether in an assembly, or a group activity in the classroom.

The language department started out with two or three children, and now has 17, three of whom come in taxis from further afield, the rest local. All have statements for specific language impairment, which ranges from articulation difficulties, to complex problems in understanding language, and autism. The department provides regular sessions in speech therapy, listening skills, language work, social interaction or play, depending on the children's needs. Much of the work is multi-sensory, using, for instance, toy figures to help sequence a story, or big, coloured shapes that the children can jump onto. "Everything has to become concrete and touchable," Liz Seddon explains.

The youngest children come to the language department twice a day for half-hour sessions; as they get older, support is gradually withdrawn - to encourage them to be more independent when they move schools. Parents are regular visitors and build up good relationships with the staff.

Most of the day, the department children are in mainstream classrooms, supported by one of an assistant. Meticulous planning ensures that class teachers and department staff know exactly what the other is working on.

"This way the children gain confidence not just academically, but socially, and they make good friendships which they often take on to their next school," says Helen Rivans, a classroom assistant who joined the department at the start. Supporting them is hard work, she admits, "but it's so rewarding - because once they're getting specialist help, they progress so much more quickly."

Language department staff working in classrooms also means that other children, not statemented but having difficulties, can quickly be referred for extra help. Barbara Veale, Elmtree's headteacher, believes strongly that the inclusion of department children helps to give the school "a caring ethos", teaching all its pupils to be more considerate of others.

About a third of children from the language department make such good progress that they move on to mainstream settings. But Liz Seddon and Nikki Dutfield are clear that the Elmtree model of inclusion does not suit every child.

"I feel there are cases when a child can't be included, whatever people say. We have had a couple of children not appropriately placed, including one with severe autism," says Liz Seddon.

Nikki Dutfield believes there is a role for the specialist language school, for specialist unit-based education, and for the inclusive setting. "We need to keep what we certainly have in this county: a diversity of specialist provision."

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