Our secondary school is merging with a special school, and this is generating a lot of staff anxiety. How can we manage the change?

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Ted says

School mergers will become increasingly common over the next few years, as falling pupil numbers hit first primary and then secondary schools. Such marriages can be of many kinds, with real gains if the process is handled well, disasters if it is managed badly.

Both schools must feel involved, or teachers and pupils become alienated.

Mainstream staff can easily feel under threat, wondering if they will cope with children who have special needs of a kind they have never encountered.

But there should be some new experts from the special school to work with them.

Pairing can help. Teachers from your school can each be linked, in advance, with a teacher from the special school. Suggest that lots of visiting takes place, pupils included, to help people understand where their new companions are coming from, who they are and what they are like.

Discuss individual pupils with the special school staff. Your fellow teachers who are unused to the range of special needs may feel apprehensive about suddenly meeting children with Asperger's syndrome and autism, for example. But the children are particularly vulnerable and will probably find transition and upheaval traumatic. Early contacts will help: children will not be meeting strangers, your colleagues will not be taken by surprise one day in September, and the special school teachers joining you will be given the welcome and respect their expertise deserves.

Buildings are also important. It may be that there will only be a single campus, so the "home" teachers and pupils know their way round, but the newcomers feel like strangers. Everyone should be sensitive to this important territorial aspect.

You say

Face up to a fantastic opportunity

The merger is a positive challenge. Special schools are wonderful places, full of hardworking, dedicated and caring individuals who work well in teams and maintain a great sense of humour. This will be one of the most noticeable benefits of the merger.

Staff from the mainstream school will have the opportunity to work with a diverse range of pupils and learn new concepts, ideas and teaching styles.

Teachers from the special school may need guidance on how to deal with common teenage issues or how to extend able children. But there must be constant dialogue.

Pupils may find the transitional period unsettling. Special needs pupils will develop important social skills from interacting with their peers, and mainstream pupils will develop an understanding of social issues and disabilities. Perhaps you could set up a buddy scheme. This merger has the potential to be successful and enlightening for everyone.

Nathan Lane, Exeter

Communicate to allay fears

The outward anxiety is probably the tip of the iceberg: for every staff member who articulates it, 10 more probably worry in silence.

You must be straight with people. Communication is the key, and you must establish clear and direct channels. Letting the grapevine take over is a recipe for every stirrer to get stirring. Provide regular updates of developments, and disseminate as much information as possible.

Above all, you should establish a joint approach with your opposite numbers.

Pat Dale, Brighton

End uncertainties on both sides

Most people find the unknown threatening, so the easiest way to decrease anxieties is to decrease the unknown. What is it that people fear? Mainstream staff and pupils may be fazed by some of the equipment used by the special school pupils, so find out why they use it; those from the special school may find the more rigid timetable and frequent room changes strange.

The two schools should be working together well before the merger, with staff and pupils spending time with their opposite numbers. Each group will have strengths and skills that will benefit the other.

Margaret Raine, Durham

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