Labels are useful for store cupboards but it's not helpful to apply them to children. As the Scottish Support for Learning Association prepares for to announce the winners of its good practice awards, Douglas Blane looks at how partnerships offer a sympathetic route to education
One of the achievements of the Scottish Support for Learning Association has been to raise awareness of the self-defeating nature of trying to raise attainment by inserting children in boxes labelled with some version of "inadequate".
"I think the message that people should look beyond labels is starting to get across," says Bill Sadler, president of the association.
"OK, Bill or Douglas might have difficulties. I've got a bucketful and I need lots of additional support. But don't come up with some grand educational label for us because we won't like it."
The organisation has joined in discussions with the Scottish Executive leading to recent and proposed legislation. "One of the things we fought for was focusing on the individual," says Mr Sadler.
The SSLA does much more than raise awareness and fight against pernicious labelling. Through local groups and national organisation it provides a network of support and information for anyone who has an interest in children who need additional support.
At last November's conference in Aberfoyle, leading professionals explored the meaning of inclusion and the place of minority groups. At this year's three-day autumn conference, in Strathspey next week, the theme is partnership.
The first day, November 6, will feature presentations from finalists in the SSLA's Good Practice in Action awards. The aim is to find examples of partnership that extend beyond school and benefit children in ways that are effective, innovative and sustainable. This year's entries cover a range of target groups.
At Dingwall Academy in Highland, the focus is on first years who are good at football but need more work on literacy and numeracy skills. The appeal of evening computer sessions to improve these has been enhanced by the enthusiastic participation of the coach and players from the local football club, Ross County. Additional support is provided by an adult invited to accompany the pupils and the core skills session is followed by football training.
The project is proving a big success, but the name Dads and Lads will have to be changed in future as the significant partner group this time has comprised dads, mums, one cousin and a sister.
At Glashieburn Primary in Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, the partnership is with the Juliet Johnston School in Ghana, which is run by the Help Tafo Trust, a Scottish charity. Funds for the west African school have been raised by the Scottish pupils through enterprise projects and donations, with pupils researching how to use the money. A sponsored African dance will finance a teacher exchange between the schools.
A curriculum for the infants in Ghana - a stage unsupported by the government - has been rewritten with input from Glashieburn Primary, which says it has not changed for 10 or so years, and is being considered for rolling out to state schools regionally and nationally.
"The partnership affects so many areas," says acting headteacher Joss Atkin, listing: "friendship, finding out about life in a different country, fostering respect for other cultures, helping to meet basic educational needs by fundraising and recycling books and teaching materials."
In Glasgow, Hillhead High has formed a partnership with Kelvin School. Volunteers from the secondary school, with a cross-section of ages and abilities, have befriended pupils with visual and complex difficulties at the latter. Among activities and events organised this year by the pupils are visits to parks and gardens, a jazz and recording session, a ceilidh with haggis, songs and speeches and a St Valentine's Day event with cards and rhymes that ranged from "rude to soppy".
"Both sets of pupils benefit from the partnership," says Hillhead High physical education teacher Moffat Mackie. "Our pupils work with kids who are less fortunate than themselves, while the Kelvin pupils gain friendship, outings and activities.
"We had a workshop recently with artists and storytellers in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, which the kids loved."
The range of projects entered for this year's good practice awards reflects the breadth of the SSLA's interests, which can be both a strength and a challenge, says Mr Sadler. "We don't have a particular target group of children. We are geared to youngsters who are more vulnerable one way or another, but we work for all learners, all abilities, all interests."
He concedes that life for the teachers who run the SSLA (which receives no core funding from the Scottish Executive) would be simpler if it were a single-issue or single-sector group. "But, you see, there are no cut-offs," he says.
"Take developmental difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or autistic difficulties. I get my words tangled up at times; some children get them tangled more severely. I am a bit clumsy; some children are much more so. There are no edges. These things are not like measles which you either have or don't have."
The association works on a broad canvas, covering all difficulties and all sectors of education from pre-school to higher. It also has members from the health and social work sectors and from voluntary agencies. This gives it its strength to cross boundaries and share good practice across different areas, he says. "Mainstream education, for example, can learn a lot from the traditional special sector.
"Inclusion is a very prickly beast to grab hold of. The principle is wonderful; the practice is not yet all it could be. It has to be resourced. It has to be well thought out.
"We have to ask what we mean by inclusion. Sitting in a class of boisterous 14-year-olds is perhaps not what inclusion is for some vulnerable boy. You can have inclusion in the activities of a community without physically being in the same school as everyone else. It is a matter of having an all-embracing ethos and big enough vision of the learning community."
Gavin Hercus, headteacher of the multi award-winning Gadburn Primary special school, in Glasgow, would agree. "There is so much a school like ours can do with kids who have difficulties. We have the specialists, the facilities and the experience," he says.
"Many of the children who would once have been based with us are now in mainstream. It is not always the best thing for the kids. What can happen is they struggle for a while in mainstream, then their parents request that they come to us when they are in P6 or P7. I won't say it's too late by then, but we can do so much more to help their learning and their self-esteem if they come when they are younger."
Mr Sadler adds: "I believe the concept of partners in learning is vital. Few of us can go away and learn on our own. We need someone who helps us and shares with us along the way.
"At school there are teachers and specialists; then there are parents and the wider community. Sometimes we are not aware of a child's learning partner. The most influential person some days might be the lollipop lady who gives the child a big smile and sets them up for the day.
"The SSLA's conference will reflect the diversity, the wonderful range of partners and people, who can help so much with children's learning."
The Scottish Support for Learning Association's conference on co-operation and participation comprises three linked events in Aviemore on Nov 6, Glenmore on Nov 7 and Cairngorm on Nov 8. Places pound;50 a day for members, pound;60 for non-members. Reduced rate hotel accommodation for participants is available. www.ssla.org.uk or contact Bill Sadler, tel 01479 872480, email@example.com