Perfect combination

4th March 2005 at 00:00
A special and a mainstream school are sharing a building and their pupils - and both are benefiting. Diana Hinds reports

The combined schools of Madley Brook (a new primary serving a new estate) and Springfield (which caters for children with severe and complex learning difficulties) represent a radical way forward for inclusion. In September 2003 these schools in Witney, Oxfordshire, moved into a single purpose-built complex.

The schools share this handsome home - known as the Bronze Barrow because its horseshoe shape sits around a bronze-age burial ground - as well as facilities and expertise. Children can move between them as appropriate.

But they have separate headteachers and separate identities.

SPECIALIST PROVISION

"We believe in appropriate inclusion, which has to meet the needs of pupils at both schools," says Christina Niner, head of Springfield. "The pupils at Springfield require a very specialist education that could not be given if they were on the roll of a mainstream school. But all our pupils benefit from some access to mainstream activities."

Springfield began life in the 1960s as a junior training centre, becoming a special school in 1971. Its main site was, according to Christina Niner, "totally unsuitable" - up a hill, with limited parking, and little space inside or out. Some of its pupils were accommodated in two local primary schools and one secondary, supported in their classes by Springfield staff.

"When it was accepted by the council that the old site was inadequate, we insisted we didn't want a segregated new school - we wanted to share a building," says Niner.

Oxfordshire County Council agreed, and Springfield teamed up with Madley Brook as an equal partner in a shared endeavour.

The Bronze Barrow contains all that a modern primary school requires - including a large hall, a library and a food technology room - as well as special school facilities: a hydrotherapy pool, a soft-play room and a sensory theatre. Madley Brook has 170 pupils, with room for a further 40; Springfield has 60, and there is an integrated nursery.

"Because we are two schools in one, we have enhanced facilities that neither school would have had if we'd been separate," says Christina Niner.

"We offer Springfield pupils experiences they wouldn't get in a segregated special school - and Springfield does the same for our mainstream pupils," says Adrienne Martin, head of Madley Brook.

MAKING INCLUSION WORK

The sharing of the building is an important part of the way the schools work together. Visitors to Madley Brook and Springfield arrive in an attractive and spacious joint reception area, where inquiries are fielded by a joint administrative team.

The offices of both heads lead off from this area. The comfortable staffroom is shared, as is the hall, which has room for all the children at assemblies and at lunch. Also shared are the library, ICT and food technology rooms. The three playground areas are sometimes used by all the children together, sometimes they are divided.

Along the outer curve of the horseshoe are the mainstream classrooms, while the special school classrooms are across the corridor, on the inside.

The corridor, which is exceptionally wide, plays an important role. This is where children from the two schools - who wear the same uniform - meet naturally every day, and where staff from parallel classrooms meet informally.

This arrangement helps children move between special and mainstream classrooms. One Springfield boy, for instance, who has cerebral palsy, spends 90 per cent of the week fully integrated with the Madley Brook Year 1 class. Two Springfield pupils join the Madley Brook Year 3 class on Monday mornings for literacy; one also comes for ICT. Classes from both schools share weekly PE or library sessions.

Some Madley Brook pupils with special needs join some Springfield classes, for example design and technology, to help build their self-confidence, and those who find it difficult to settle may use the soft play room for relaxation sessions with a teaching assistant.

Older Madley Brook pupils enjoy helping Springfield children with activities such as reading and cooking.

"It's a good idea because then you can interact more, and they can learn to do things that normal children would do," says Alex McTiernan, who is in Year 6 at Madley Brook. "You shouldn't treat them differently because they might be affected by the way you treat them."

The schools have separate governing bodies, and a joint inclusion group.

The two heads try to make all key decisions together, but acknowledge this can be complex and time-consuming.

"It is certainly not an easy option, and there is no model to follow," says Christina Niner. "We have to trust each other."

POSITIVE OUTCOMES

Rachel Lovel's son, who is seven, suffers from avoidant anxiety, a kind of extreme shyness, and attends Springfield school.

Lovel had hoped he would go to a mainstream school, but is delighted with what the combined schools offer.

"It means he can go at his own pace," she says. "He integrates three or four times a week, going into the mainstream class with support, and he plays football with Madley Brook. We hope he will join the mainstream later, but with the needs he has, if you pushed him too far, it could set him back a long way. This is a wonderful set-up and it works very well for him."

Jane Harrison has two children at Springfield with severe learning disabilities, and says the combined schools are ideal for them. Her daughter, who is 6, is stimulated by the mainstream children to develop her language, which is one of her strengths. Her 8-year-old son sings well and was able to take part in the Witney Festival of Voices with Madley Brook Year 2.

"I want my children to have quality inclusion - to be integrated with their peers not as much as possible, but in as positive a manner as possible," she says.

There are benefits, too, for the mainstream children. "Our children are learning so much about tolerance and respect," says Adrienne Martin. "We're all learning to see behind the needs, to see the personalities."

For Springfield pupils, as well as staff, the combined schools provide a rich and stimulating environment, says Christina Niner. "There is so much going on here. I would never want to work in a segregated special school again, unless there was the opportunity to do something like this."

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