Open sesame!

6th June 2003 at 01:00
From August, all children with special educational needs will have the right to attend a mainstream school. How will teachers cope? Raymond Ross visits a primary and a secondary which have been particularly successful at tackling the difficulties

Most teachers back the Scottish Executive's social inclusion policy but they know the problems it can cause in the classroom. Over the next few years between 2,000 and 5,000 pupils with all kinds of additional educational needs will join mainstream classes and, whatever the difficulty, schools will have to cope.

Last week a joint report by Audit Scotland and HM Inspectorate of Education estimated that the cost of inclusion could rise by up to pound;121 million a year and there will be a 40 per cent drop in pupils attending special schools. But inspectors found that planning for inclusion was "patchy in councils" and the most significant impact would probably be in the larger cities.

Cardonald Primary in Glasgow is used to supporting children with additional needs. It has a pupil roll of 436, of whom 20 have physical disabilities.

Two children use wheelchairs, two have the use of only one eye, one child has cystic fibrosis, another Crohn's disease (affecting the intestines) and another diabetes.

"There was no drive on the authority's part to direct children with physical disabilities here at first," says headteacher Jean Lavety, "but we seemed to get a good reputation for it and, with placing requests from nearby areas, we were fast becoming a socially inclusive school.

"We've had no official professional development for special needs pupils in the six years I've been headteacher, but I believe all our pupils are fully included.

"We try to do what every school does: support all our young people.

"You would never know from school reports who had a physical disability or not. They all go to school discos and take part fully in the life of the school, including, as far as possible, PE," she says.

Cardonald Primary has five special educational needs auxiliaries, who help to support pupils to and from school, around the school, in the gym and in the playground. They are trained by physiotherapists and occupational therapists to do exercises with the children too.

Mrs Lavety believes the inclusion of special needs pupils is good for the other children too. "They have a better understanding that people are people and strike up genuine friendships rather than toleration," she says.

The school regularly reassesses the support an individual needs at different stages and which pupils the SEN auxiliaries are going to support and when. "It's not easy to timetable," says Mrs Lavety. "Inclusion wouldn't work without the commitment of all the staff."

The authority installed a stair-lift last year. "You need adequate resourcing and Glasgow City Council does try, though I believe we could do even better with more resources," says Mrs Lavety.

"We're very aware of the presumption of mainstreaming and the August date and I think we're prepared. Glasgow is a listening authority and I hope it can be responsive to any requests we might have to make."

The school staff have also been taking courses about special educational needs of their own volition. "There's a willingness to be better informed, which is crucially important," she says As well as the disabled pupils, the school also has five pupils with records of needs, eight who have individual education plans and some 30-40 who have emotional and behavioural difficulties to varying degrees, which require a lot of time and attention. Most classes are maximum size and almost a fifth of the school roll receives free school meals.

"Inclusion is an extra burden for teachers, especially with maximum class sizes, but we fully believe in it where it is possible," says Mrs Lavety.

"It's been a steep learning curve for our SEN auxiliaries, who had to learn on the job. They have built up a lot of experience and confidence and one has done a two-year certificate course off her own bat but financed by the authority. She's hoping to go on to a Higher National Diploma."

Professional development is key to the success of all schools dealing with social inclusion.

At Hillpark Secondary on Glasgow's south side, all staff have had to build up expertise in a range of areas. This year it appointed a pupil support manager (presently at assistant headteacher level) to co-ordinate its support for learning department, guidance department, its pupil support centre (behavioural) and its communication disorder unit (CDU), which supports 12 pupils with high functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome.

The school has 1,230 pupils, drawn from 11 primaries in a mixed catchment area. Just over a third receive free school meals.

"I am totally and utterly committed to social inclusion," says headteacher Joan Donnelly. "That must include poverty, deprivation, attendance I as well as special educational needs.

"All of this is challenging for the class teachers. We have maximum classes and are a real comprehensive with mixed ability teaching."

"Our approach is holistic and I like to think we are all support teachers," says Bernadette O'Donnell, the new pupil support manager.

"Support does not just rest with support departments. We also have pupils with sight and hearing impairment and English as an additional language.

All our staff have built up expertise in these areas through continuing professional development."

The CDU was purpose built, has been well resourced and has a teacher:pupil ratio of 1:6. "The authority will have to reflect on other support as we move forward," says Ms O'Donnell.

The school has been identified as open to inclusion and other schools with pupils who have moderate learning difficulties are keen to use Hillpark Secondary's resources after their own 3pm closure times, but this will depend on timetabling, says Ms O'Donnell.

Fiona McLachlan and Margaret Wilson job-share the principal teacher's post in the support for learning department. Much of their work involves liaising with different agencies, departments, individual teachers, parents and the 11 associated primary schools.

They also pursue links with local further education colleges, such as Cardonald College, where pupils with additional support needs can attend part-time or even, for Christmas leavers, full-time for their last term.

"Good communication is essential," says Ms Wilson. "We use a confidential file system. These files are regularly updated. We suggest teaching and learning strategies and discuss them with staff, working closely with guidance staff so that we're all aware what the others are doing.

"We've worked hard on the primary school links and visit each school three times to identify early on any particular learning needs individual pupils may have."

They also liaise with the CDU staff and, with them, support pupils in mainstream classes if it is necessary. "We're very careful to avoid teacher overload," says Ms McLachlan. "It depends very much on the individual child.

"It can be different for Asperger's syndrome pupils because they can be very bright but need social support rather than support for learning per se."

Ms McLachlan and Ms Wilson believe support for learning is a whole school issue. They operate an open door policy for the staff and, along with other specialist colleagues, will provide class teachers with information on a need-to-know basis.

"A real ethos of integration does not happen by accident," says headteacher Joan Donnelly, adding that her staff have worked hard to achieve more than 80 per cent success in integrating CDU pupils in mainstream classes with varying levels of support.

"We've had to support staff through training to be specialists. The CDU staff are trained to deal with Asperger's syndrome pupils and they liaise with and support other staff.

"Targets differ for the individual pupils. All are supported in class initially but the SEN auxiliary withdraws when the teacher feels skilled enough," she says.

She believes more staff training is necessary for inclusion in the years ahead. "We would like more on areas like special educational needs, or additional support needs as it will be termed.

"If we are going to tackle social inclusion we need more training. Staff themselves feel this. They are committed and there is a real inclusive ethos among our pupils too, but more time and effort must be put into staff professional development."

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