From this week, there will be a presumption of mainstream schooling for all children with special educational needs. Dumfries and Galloway has been pursuing integration for many years and Stranraer Academy in particular offers an example of good practice, reports Douglas Blane
Stranraer Academy and its pupils confound first impressions. The dilapidated stonework and tall weeds growing on the flat roof make it a contender for the most dreadful looking school in Scotland. Yet behind the crumbling facade is a modern building of light and space.
It is a similar story with the pupils: there is more to them than meets the eye.
Paula, aged 18, used to be the despair of her teachers and on the verge of exclusion, but she has been helping out in the schools' unit for children with severe learning difficulties and plans to train to work with children with special support needs.
When Lindsay, aged 15, first came to the school she was noisy and disruptive and was soon sent to the behaviour unit. Now she loves learning new things every day and is "really excited" about going into the fourth year.
Scott struggled at his previous school because of dyslexia but with learning support and the help of a laptop computer andvoice-recognition software, the 14-year-old has made great progress and now talks of training to be a teacher. "I don't feel stupid anymore," he says.
These children and many others have benefited from the inclusive education ethos at Stranraer Academy. Headteacher James Higgins says his experience of teaching in a special school convinced him that the only reason many children were being taught in a separate environment was lack of access in the mainstream. So, access for all pupils to resources and an appropriate curriculum has been a feature of the school since well before the Scottish Executive raised inclusion on the education agenda.
Throughout Dumfries and Galloway increasing numbers of children have been integrated into the mainstream over the past several years. The authority now has only 0.3 per cent of children in special schools, one of the lowest figures in Scotland. Corresponding percentages for Glasgow and Edinburgh are eight times as high.
New legislation effective from this month makes the experience in Dumfries and Galloway in general, and Stranraer Academy in particular, pertinent to every school and authority in Scotland. With the beginning of this session comes a "presumption of mainstreaming" for children with special educational needs. Research by HM Inspectorate of Education and Audit Scotland indicates this means 2,000 to 5,000 more children in mainstream schools.
Inspectors found inclusion benefits all pupils. Best practice was seen in schools that have been developing inclusion for years; children with emotional and behavioural problems or complex needs presented the greatest challenges.
Stranraer Academy has separate units with different mainstreaming presumptions for pupils with behavioural problems and those with complex needs. "This is one part of the school where an empty classroom would be a sign of success," says acting depute headteacher Alex Moffatt in the behaviour unit.
A small group of boys is working at a table beside an image of golden sand and palm trees on the interactive whiteboard. "Some youngsters do need to get right away from their normal surroundings for a while," he says. "They get to a certain point and things start happening to them. That's when they need help to get back on track."
The behaviour unit is not the end of the line in helping troubled children.
There is a further safety net for those whose behaviour remains unacceptable and who could be candidates for exclusion and even residential placement.
Crannog is an authority-wide support initiative run in three centres by Aberlour Child Care Trust, which recently received very positive evaluation of its methods and results (The TES Scotland, June 27). It provides individual assessment, coaching and support to children - predominantly aged 12-16 - to help them return to mainstream education.
"In the six years Crannog has been here it has become invaluable to us," says Mr Moffatt. "We work closely with them and meet regularly to discuss youngsters.
"I always thought some kind of off-site facility was needed because the kids see me first and foremost as a teacher, so it's difficult for them to open up; it can take a while."
Agnes Henderson, manager of the Crannog centre in Stranraer, explains how they try to help. "These kids' lives are not working, so something needs to change. We work with them and their families and try to build relationships. We provide an environment where they want to change the way they do things, the way they look at the world. For that to happen they need to be supported and to feel good about themselves."
Mr Moffatt believes the main lesson from the Crannog project is the importance of trust and good relationships in dealing with children.
"Crannog works hard at building relationships with kids and their families.
It's one area I think schools could do better. We are often so focused on education and qualifications we don't pay enough attention to social circumstances and family background. If that's not right, school is not going to work."
In Stranraer Academy's unit for children with complex and severe learning difficulties there is an unusual buzz because a visit is expected from the popular Stranraer Ladies African Drummers. Some of the children are playing in cushioned areas while others are being given their lunch. Lee, a smiling extrovert with Down's syndrome, introduces himself and leads the visitors by the hand on a tour of the facilities.
Pupils taught in the unit spend most of their time here, with well-supported forays into mainstream classes.Their teachers and assistants express mixed feelings about the effectiveness of this.
"It benefits our kids to be part of a larger group and mainstream children are usually very welcoming," says teacher Gillian Baldie. "Some of the teachers are too, but not all. You can understand how they feel because they are under great pressure to get their pupils through exams and sometimes our kids can get a bit noisy. If that happens, though, we just take them out of class.
"Inclusion is easier in primary school, I think, because the teachers are used to coping with different groups in their classroom.
"There is a big public relations exercise to be done with secondary teachers."
Stranraer Academy's head of support for learning, Jean Locke, shares her views on inclusion as she leads the way to the learning centre. "At one time, the self-esteem of kids taken out of the mainstream was very low because they were told they just weren't able. Inclusion means all children getting a chance to find something they are really good at. It opens doors for them.
"You do have to treat children as individuals, though. For many it's great, others need to be well prepared and for a few it can be quite traumatic and is probably not a good idea."
Boys are always in the majority in the learning centre. Here, seven S3 boys are studying maths under teacher Alison Brown and assistant Veronica Kyle.
They are working on Access 2, except one lad who is doing Access 3.
As the adults move around, guiding the pupils' thinking, cajoling them to concentrate, praising their efforts, the boys react in different ways: one looks anxious, others studious, a few chat together or to the adults. The teacher creates a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere and allows frequent breaks for glasses of fruit juice.
"We see them regularly and know them well, most of them since they were in Primary 7," says Ms Brown.
"One lad has Asperger's syndrome and can get very stressed. Another joined us recently and has taken time to settle. Some of the kids have behaviour problems and difficult backgrounds.
"It is better if they are relaxed when they're here because they get more work done. They can find it hard to express themselves in mainstream where there's a lot of rough and tumble, but in here they can."
Young William, invited by his teacher to talk about the school flower beds the group has been working on, explains: "The ground was all covered in weeds and it didn't look nice. We dug them out by the roots so they couldn't grow back again. Then we planted lots of flowers. I'm going to come in over the holidays to look after them."
In his office, Mr Higgins talks of the school's plans for widening the curriculum. "We have had pupils from the learning centre working in local stables and being given a talk by an expert angler," he says. "Watching the kids with these people - their heads came up, the dark looks vanished - gave us the idea of producing a bank of practical resources to match the curriculum to the individual in a broader sense. This won't just be for particular groups but for a range of people and circumstances.
"In my experience that is something you often find with special needs. Good ideas that start off in special needs regularly find their way into the mainstream, simply because they are good ideas."