Mount of inspiration

4th August 2000 at 01:00
A Welsh education authority is leading the way in integrating special needs pupils into the mainstream with a unique partnership, writes Reva Klein.

Deepest Snowdonia is picture-postcard pretty and the air is cleaner than any you're likely to have been inhaling lately. Look in one direction and you can see Mount Snowdon swathed in wispy cloud; in another, trees so green they're blue. The timeless beauty that people go on holiday to admire exists alongside pockets of deprivation. Less likely to appear in the tourism brochures is another of North Wales's greatest assets: an education authority in the vanguard of bracing social change.

Gwynedd Council in north Wales is leading the way on the inclusion of children with special needs into mainstream schools. Look at the figures: where the average number of children in England and Wales placed in special schools is 0.81 per cent and where the Welsh average is 0.58 per cent, in Gwynedd it's 0.38 per cent.

Figures can disguise a multitude of sleights of hand, though. Better and infinitely more interesting to look at the jewel in the crown of Gwynedd's inclusion policy, which may also prove to be a model partnership for Wales.

Since January, Bontnewydd primary school in Caernarvon has had the distinction of being the first primary in Wales to have a unit for children with severe learning difficulties (SLD) attached to it, according to the architects of the scheme.

In what Gwynedd local education authority's deputy director of education Rhys Parri believes is a "unique partnership" between the LEA, Pendalar school forchildren with severe learning difficulties and Bontnewydd, the unit is run and staffed by the special school, which is in nearbyBangor.

Children in the unit attend some classes with the mainstream children, including music, arts and crafts and PE, as well as assemblies and playtime. Inroads are beginning to be made into the core subjects. Some pupils have recently started attending mainstream science lessons, working from specially-adapted worksheets which require less writing than the mainstream pupils produce. The rest of the time is spent in the unit, which is staffed by a teacher, a classroom assistant and a youth trainee doing a national vocational qualification in child development.

The seven children in the unit, aged 7-11, have various degrees of learning difficulties, ranging from general delay to the higherfunctioning end of the autistic spectrum. Every therapy they receive at Pendalar - speech, physio and music therapy - they receive at the unit. The unit so far has no physically handicapped children, but probably will do so in the future, and is designed to be fully accessible.

Neither the mainstream pupils at Bontnewydd nor those in the unit are much fazed by being in each other's company. They're used to it. For 25 years, chidren from Pendalar special school have been enjoying an exchange with Bontnewydd, which is their local primary school. EveryMonday morning, a group of reception children goes from one school to the other, learning about each other, about diversity and getting along with peopledifferent from themselves. That exchange continues today.

But while the children in the unit may be used to being around children outside the unit for short periods, moving into it on apermanent basis has affected the SLD children dramatically, says teacher Sioned Hughes.

"When the unit first opened in January, the children were very different to how they are now," she says. "They're mixing much better with the other children, which you'd expect. But they also seem to be able to concentratebetter and have adapted very quickly to being in a new environment. Some of them are much calmer than before, possibly from seeing how the other children behave. But like all children they learn from example, so they're learning some new tricks, too."

This being Wales, all the pupils in the unit are bilingual, with half speaking Welsh as a first language. Those whose first language is Welsh stick to it for all their writing, although classes are taught in both English and Welsh.

Pendalar's headteacher, Evan Jones, has done a study of bilingualism and special needs children and has found "no significant difference between them and non-SEN children in terms of acquiring their second language. Welsh seems to give them a better basis for taking on English because of their highly developed auditory discrimination skills."

Moreover, English SAT results are on a par with their native- English-speaking peers.

As far as the LEA and the teachers involved are concerned, there's no doubt that the unit at Bontnewydd is the best of all worlds for these children. Their facilities are customised to their needs. One side of the big classroom is new and brightly painted with lots of the children's artwork on the walls. Adjoining it, there's a relaxation corner with soft chairs and cushions that also serves as a "time out corner" when a child gets upset or hyped up. Calming music is played throughout the day. The structured, serious work tends to take place in the morning, when pupils are at their best. Afternoons are for artwork and more relaxed activities.

The first of the unit's Year 6 children moves up to secondary school in September. Because of his good progress, he'll be transferring to a mainstream school. But, says Evan Jones, "not allchildren will be able to cope and this is where we'll be concentrating the next stage in the planning: what happens when children leave the unit? Will they go back to Pendalar special school or move on to a mainstream secondary school - or will they need something more structured between the two, like here?"

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