Life in a special school

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Summer term. From my school days I remember the excitement of lessons outside, blissful playtimes and tricking our teacher; Jane Gale and I would pretend to be doing a project on butterflies so we could wander around the field in the sunshine. We might have seen some butterflies, but it was more to do with chatting, planning our futures and sorting things out in our heads. We didn't worry about sunburn then. Or Sats.

Summer terms in schools are now dominated by exams: Sats, GCSEs, A-levels and, in my special school, teacher assessments. We don't don a tiara, put a "quiet, I'm assessing" notice on the door and ask children to do unnatural things - "will you put the doll under the chair five times out of seven please"; it's more a matter of looking at the evidence we've gathered over the year, consulting with colleagues and arriving at a result, usually a "P (pre-national curriculum) level".

We'll have set targets for groups of pupils, and use the assessment data to see if we're on track. This has its own dangers in special schools, where children often spend years consolidating and generalising a skill.

Sometimes they actually lose skills. We have to find ways of demonstrating lateral as well as linear progress, and sensitive ways to express that their targets may now be to do with care needs and experiences rather than skill or knowledge development.

A friend who teaches at a comprehensive tells me that she enjoys summer term as a time of reflection and celebration - or of accepting that more needs to be done and getting back on track. There's a vast difference, she says, between a Year 9 and a Year 10 pupil, and she puts this down to their being focused on targets and results. Again, we find this difficult to replicate in special schools, and maybe we don't give our children, with their patchy profiles and atypical development, enough opportunities to be involved in setting goals for themselves.

It's not that it's a hit and miss affair; it's that it is more individual.

We tend to say, "I think Gemma will be able to count out change from pound;1, travel to college independently and cook oven chips", rather than, "85 per cent of our Year 10s will have achieved level 1". We write our reports this term too, and find that parents like to hear how children are getting on, what skills they are developing, and how happy they are; they are less bothered, and even bewildered, by hearing their child is a particular number.

Those summer days on the school field were probably teaching me more than I knew, but as we tend to value what can be measured rather than finding ways to measure what we value, those skills of reflection and communication that I was developing were never recorded. Maybe my teacher then was wise enough to see that and, far from being tricked, was encouraging our little butterfly projects.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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