Bushey Meads comprehensive in Hertfordshire is blazing a trail with its policy of integrating severely disabled children into mainstream classes. Other schools would do well to take note - changes in the law will mean more rights for disabled youngsters. Karen Gold reports.
It was during the Year 7 French test that Jessica Talbot's cerebral palsy suddenly became a problem. Before that, everything had been fine. Using Bushey Meads' newly installed lift, she could reach the upstairs classroom in her wheelchair. A learning support assistant was always there to help her turn pages or write out the homework. Her arm might have gone sideways rather than up when the teacher asked a question, but it was obvious that she knew the answer.
In fact, it was her knowing the answers that finally brought the situation to a head. For whenever the teacher played a tape of French questions and told the class to write down their replies, the other children would wait for Jessica to tell her assistant what to write. Then they would copy her answers - relying on Jessica's talent for language to ensure they all got full marks.
The solution was to give Jessica a printed sheet of answers, so she could discreetly point rather than speak. Watching her work with 110 per cent of her energy, in all the top sets, her books covered in commendations, moving from wheelchair to standing frame to keep her muscles from wasting, undaunted by the muscle spasms that inhibit speech, you can't help feeling that a school entirely populated with Jessicas would be an inspirational place.
But most of Bushey Meads' 1,100 pupils are standard, Hertfordshire-London borders, 11-18 comprehensive intake. Around 25 of them, however, have the kind of serious physical disabilities rarely seen in mainstream schools - cerebral palsy, difficulties associated with brain damage, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy. Go into a Bushey Meads classroom and you can't help noticing pupils such as Shaz Hossain, a Year 11 student who has cerebral palsy and indistinct speech. He mostly communicates by pointing to words and letters on a board, and his speciality is designing websites using a computer controlled by a joystick. Or you may spot Khizer Mahmood, who has a muscle-wasting disease and no speech at all. He answers teachers' questions by raising his eyes for "yes" and lowering them for "no". Now in Year 10, he gained level 5 in his English SATs last year, spelling out his answers by pointing to words on a board, one letter at a time, with his eyes.
Without these children, Bushey Meads would seem an ordinary school, with average GCSE results, rather run-down buildings and a substantial waiting list. It has them because of historical circumstance - a former head who was interested in including children with physical disabilities, the closure of a nearby special school, and predominantly single-storey buildings. From these coincidences has grown a 15-year track record of educating children other mainstream schools would never consider.
Some of these children travel daily from the far end of Hertfordshire. Every year the school accepts all those whose SEN statements name Bushey Meads, but has to turn away others. No more than two children in wheelchairs are allowed in any one class, for safety reasons - the school has too few basic facilities, such as adapted toilets, to take all the children whose families want them to come here.
They arrive each morning at what they call The Base - a converted cloakroom in the main building that is the hub of the school's work with disabled students. It contains computers, small one-to-one rooms, toilets and changing facilities, an equipment store, and the office of Bushey Meads' SEN co-ordinator for the past 15 years, Sue Lawrence.
Some students simply arrive at The Base and go off to their classrooms for the day. Others have teaching sessions or physiotherapy there. Some use it socially, not only to see disabled friends but to bring able-bodied classmates in. That gives them a social advantage. Shaz's friends, for example, get the chance to work on websites with him because he invites them into The Base at lunchtime.
Bushey Meads' 18-strong learning support team is also centred here. Seeing them on home ground, you soon realise the advantage of having a cluster of physically impaired students. Whereas the handful of support assistants in many mainstream schools seem to hover in a kind of no-man's land between the staffroom and the classroom, these people know exactly who they are and what they are doing. Rather than being attached to one student, they support a range of subjects - one has a modern languages degree, another is confident at higher level GCSE maths, a third has become The Base's IT expert.
The school has paid for all of them to gain a City and Guilds certificate in learning support. Part of which involves taking physical care of the students, including some who are incontinent; maybe helping the girls during menstruation or feeding students by hand or through a gastrostomy tube.
They are paid no more than the pitiful national rates, between pound;9,000 and pound;10,000 a year on average. But the effort they put in far outstrips the relatively poor financial incentive. One runs a wheelchair football club that has attracted the attention of Watford and former England coach Graham Taylor; another is studying A-level psychology alongside the disabled student she supports. Bushey Meads has been able to build up that team, says Sue Lawrence, because it started with eight students. "If you take only one child," she says, "it's difficult. With eight it means more LSAs, it means they can support each other, and funding for physical access can be shared."
Over the years, the school has invested substantially - almost pound;200,000 - in physical resources. Double doors open automatically for children in wheelchairs who hold an electronic key; pathways have been widened, disabled toilets and ramps installed. The most recent addition is a lift - although it cannot be used in a fire, so the most disabled students are still unable to use the handful of upstairs classrooms because they could not get into the emergency hoist that would get them down.
Funding has come from the Government's Schools Access Initiative - which has just been increased from pound;100m to pound;220m for England and Wales over the next three years. The money is needed because this year, for the first time, schools will be under scrutiny for disability discrimination, from which they have previously been exempt.
The Disability Rights in Education Bill, which the Government flagged up in November's Queen's Speech, is to be introduced early in the current session. It will oblige schools and local education authorities to provide places in mainstream schools for disabled pupils if they and their families want them. Previously, schools could simply state that they lacked facilities to take a disabled child.
Under the legislation, it will be unlawful for education providers to treat a child less favourably on the grounds of disability. Schools and LEAs will have to take reasonable steps to change any policies or practices that place a disabled child at a significant disadvantage to his or her peers. And they will have to show they have a plans to improve access.
The cautiously worded legislation will not bring about inclusion overnight, special needs campaigners agree. But it will make a steady impact on physical facilities for disabled children - a mere 18 per cent of primary schools and eight per cent of secondary schools currently have full wheelchair access, for example.
And it will give parents and children a right of redress - the special needs tribunal will hear cases of alleged discrimination. It will not make awards of cash compensation, but will have the power to insist that a school or LEA changes its practice. Change must be reasonable - a school with a top-floor library, for example, will not be expected to move the entire library downstairs. But it will have to provide a disabled student with a catalogue of books, fetch any the student chooses and provide a quiet reading room.
Schools will no longer be allowed to exclude children from certain activities because they are disabled. The recent case of a school refusing to allow a diabetic boy to go on his class foreign language exchange, for example, would be against the new law. The school would have to make arrangements to take him - just as Bushey Meads arranged for two support assistants to go to Dorset for a week last year, so Shaz could join in with a residential trip.
Schools and teachers will not gain the confidence to do these kinds of things overnight, says Sue Lawrence. She supports teaching staff by providing a written brief on all the children with physical disabilities at the start of the year, and arranges meetings with departments about children they are going to teach.
Perhaps partly because the support team is so obviously expert, staff respond with varying degrees of confidence. Ms Lawrence has not so far, for example, persuaded them to set educational targets for these children. In the classroom, the children who need LSAs to write for them seem particularly separate - they tend to sit at a table with just an assistant.
One irony of Bushey Meads' achievement is that as the school uncovers the extent of these children's remarkable potential, the task of helping them fulfil it becomes increasingly difficult. Twenty years ago, Shaz's talent for design would never have been discovered. Now the school not only has to battle for him to be allowed to submit a "virtual" design for his design and technology GCSE - currently outlawed by exam boards - but he is consigned to a demotivated bottom science set, because his physical limitations exclude him from the higher tier exam.
The same is true of Khizer, now valiantly eye-pointing his way through his GCSE English coursework. Intellectually he is capable of an A grade. But writing the quantity - not the quality - required for an A grade, letter by letter, would take years. So he must be satisfied with a lower-tier syllabus, and at best a C. By the time Jessica - still only 11, full of hope and determination and travelling a path others have cleared before her - takes her GCSEs, perhaps schools, LEAs and exam boards may have found some of the answers.
Bushey Meads headteacher Dena Coleman, who is making plans with Hertfordshire LEA to train staff and extend access in schools, hopes so. She says:"We still aim to get the children ever more integrated, particularly to help the ones with the more extreme disabilities become part of the class. We are still learning ourselves, and we must recognise that. We've come a long way, but we've a long way to go."