Not just a flight of fancy

7th April 2006 at 01:00
A special needs school on the edge of Heathrow airport has piloted a new initiative to gain specialist status. Martin Whittaker reports

Out in the grounds of Marjory Kinnon school, on the edge of Heathrow airport, children happily play amid the rumble and scream of planes taking off.

While having an airport nearby has its downsides - the extra cost of soundproofing in the school's new buildings, for example - there are also advantages, such as school visits and links with employers.

Now, thanks to its new specialist status, the school's links with the airport are really getting off the ground. Marjory Kinnon is among the first dozen schools to pilot a new specialism in special educational needs.

With its new status, it is strengthening links with the British Airport Authority and the large hotels around Heathrow's perimeter to educate them about people with special needs.

"BAA employs a number of our ex-pupils," said headteacher David Harris.

"What we wanted to achieve was to improve the understanding and the management of youngsters with special needs by these companies.

"In the hotel business, for instance, youngsters with moderate learning difficulties who are given appropriate tasks can perform very well in the work situation. But they have to be treated appropriately, and given instructions in a mode they understand. Our job is to get that across to the managers."

Previously, special schools could apply for specialist status in a subject area - there are 30 such schools with a curriculum specialism. But last year the Specialist Schools Programme was extended to allow special schools to specialise in one of four areas of the SEN code of practice:l communication and interaction;l cognition and learning; l behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, and;l sensory andor physical needs.

The Department for Education and Skills now wants to see 50 new SEN specialist schools within the next two years, as well as 50 more designated for a curriculum specialism.

Its aim is to strengthen SEN expertise and encourage special schools to share that expertise with mainstream schools.

Apart from the extra cash,what are the benefits? Pauline Holbrook, national inclusionco-ordinator with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, says it makes special schools look in great detail at their provision, both internally and in how they interact with the world outside.

Half of their extra funding is for developing schemes in their community.

"It certainly makes schools more outward-looking," she said.

Marjory Kinnon is a maintained special school in Hounslow, with 165 pupils aged four to 16, plus provision for 16 to 19-year-olds. Most pupils have moderate learning difficulties, and the school has 34 places for autistic children.

It became an SEN specialist in "cognition and learning" last September.

David Harris said many aspects of a specialist school were already in place.

The school has supported mainstream schools in Hounslow and developed some innovative community involvement, including a project in which young people nearing the end of their sentences at nearby Felthamyoung offender institution help pupils toward the Duke of Edinburgh Award.

The application to become an SEN specialist was not easy. It involved a thorough audit of everything the school does in terms of curriculum and community involvement. But Mr Harris found this beneficial: "We had to take a good look at ourselves," he said. "It required us to point out our strengths and highlight areas we would like to develop."

The school had to raise pound;30,000 in sponsorship, but its new status brings in pound;60,000 a year for four years, plus a pound;100,000 capital grant - the latter has been used to provide a new IT suite to enable parents to learn how to support their children at home.

The key is the school's expertise - not in one curriculum area, but in teaching children with learning difficulties. "I couldn't envisage being a centre of excellence for PE when all the schools around us have better PE facilities and more potential for being excellent in that area," said Mr Harris.

"In this area, we don't have any peers. We are where it's at, and it makes us a valuable commodity for the authority.

"I see this new designation as being one every special school should be able to achieve because it's supportive generally of kids with special needs. Sometimes we can be accused of being inward-looking, but that's not the case. We're interested in special-needs kids wherever they are."

What are the downsides? Mr Harris says there is a lot of negotiating with heads of mainstream schools who, although they may be supportive, also have their own schools to run. And disruption to pupils must be minimised.

But he says it is well worth it, particularly for staff who have been with the school for many years. "It's given a whole range of staff the chance to get out and do something a bit different. It's good for morale."

St Hugh's school in Scunthorpe is currently applying for the new status.

The school was recently the subject of a reorganisation, and changed from an all-age toan 11-19 school.

After a good Ofsted inspection last year, head Chris Darlington says it was a case of seeing where the north Lincolnshire school could aim next. It is applying for specialism in communication and interaction.

"We are very keen to work with mainstream colleagues, sharing resources, knowledge and expertise," he said. "We felt that this would allow us to extend what we were already doing."

How will the new specialism help its 114 pupils? "It will maybe focus us a little bit more clearly on specific targets around communication and interaction. I think the other aspect of it is that, because we are then linked to the Trust, there's an opportunity for peer self-evaluation.

"Special schools can be very isolated. I think this provides opportunities for people to come into the school and encourage you in a positive and developmental manner to review your practice and targets."

The Department for Education and Skills has produced guidance materials with the SSAT and the Youth Sport Trust that sets out the aims and criteria of the programme and outlines how schools can apply.

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