Let's talk about drugs
At one table a lively discussion about solvents was in full swing. At another, a group of children were investigating the effects of alcoholic drinks. At a third, a trio matched pictures of soft and hard drugs with their appropriate street names.
Some people have said that children in special schools have less need than mainstream youngsters to be educated about drugs, since they're less likely to be exposed to them. Teacher Sue Mason, whose pupils at Yewstock School in Sturminster Newton in Dorset were deep in the topic when I visited, believes this is nonsense.
"They're being naive, they don't know what goes on," she says. "We can't put our heads in the sand. Though some of these children are quite isolated, many of them can tell you where to get drugs, or know people in the community who take them. Some have experimented themselves, at a very low level."
Yewstock School covers a wide range of special needs among its 113 pupils, aged from two to 19, who have moderate, severe or profound and complex learning difficulties. They come here from all over north Dorset, many from small towns such as Blandford, Gillingham, Shaftesbury and Sherborne. The staff work on the basis that drugs are as much a part of young people's lives in this rural area as they are in Glasgow and Birmingham, and that their pupils as much as anyone need to gain knowledge and an understanding of drug use and its consequences in order to make informed choices.
"We tell them that it's their body, and that they're in charge of it," Sue Mason says. "But we also make it clear that they won't be in charge if they haven't got the right information in the first place. Most of them get the message."
The Yewstock teachers, and their colleagues in six other special schools in the county, are more fortunate than many working in special education, since they can use a good variety of stimulating, activity-based materials which enable them more easily to engage the children in talking about drugs.
Dorset is one of 18 LEAs whose innovative drugs education and prevention projects have been funded by the Government's Grants for Education Support and Training programme. But Dorset's scheme is the only one with a component that targets children in special education.
Joan Riseam, the LEA's drugs education adviser, decided to use much of the GEST money for new materials. "Teachers in our special schools weren't happy with the packs available, which tended to be mostly sheets in ring binders, " she says. "What they wanted were materials for short, sharp activities that got their children talking."
She co-ordinates a group of Dorset's special school teachers, who meet regularly to look at materials and consider their effectiveness for personal and social education. They particularly favour the cartoon-style collages known as Storyboard.
Large and colourful, they comprise three write-onwipe-off linked boards featuring a street scene, with a good mix of characters, each with a blank speech bubble, which the teacher fills in according to pupils' suggestions. As the characters move along the street they make decisions - such as whether or not to use drugs.
"Teachers are dying to use them, they think they're wonderful," Joan Riseam says. "Children love them because it's starting from where they are, which is much better than telling them what to do. They watch TV like everyone else, so it's no good giving them low-level, simplistic materials."
At Yewstock, six children from Years 9, l0 and 11 were grouped around the third Storyboard, which gives them a chance to consider the consequences of using drugs. They have already looked at what drugs are and how they affect your mind and body.
Sue Mason invites them to suggest what the characters might be thinking or saying and consider how taking drugs might affect their relationships. "Your friends would hate you," one boy says. "Your family might chuck you out, " a girl ventures. Another boy says: "If you get high you could get into fights. "
Sue Mason inserts some of the most pertinent ideas into the blank speech bubbles. "It's often easier for the children to be able to talk through someone else like these characters," she says. "It's especially helpful to those who don't normally say much for themselves."
The Storyboards were developed by Headon Productions, a small Manchester firm. One of the partners, Tracie Marshall, an art teacher who has also worked with young people on probation, has trialled them in special schools, where they have been used for topics as diverse as anger management, careers and personal hygiene.
"Young people say they find the characters friendly, and feel free to ask questions they wouldn't normally ask," she says. "They're not threatened by the materials. They help them to talk through things that they're uncertain about."
The Storyboards have also been used in mainstream schools in subjects such as drama, and as a stimulus for discussion on topics such as bullying and sex education. In Dorset, primary teachers are interested in using them. Teachers in 20 schools have jumped at the chance of trialling them with their pupils, and discussing the outcome.
Meanwhile, the Yewstock children are gaining something more than just knowledge. "The Storyboards are not only about information, they're about communicating with others," Joan Riseam stresses. "They're proving very good for speaking and listening."
Details: Headon Productions, The Paul Building, Denison Road, Victoria Park, Manchester M14 5RX. Tel: 0161 225 7080