Pooled resources

14th October 2005 at 01:00
So openly inclusive is this mainstream primary that one pupil has won an award for designing a wheelchair. Gerald Haigh reports.

Has it ever struck you that wheelchairs can look quite ordinary - wonderfully functional and a tribute to the ingenuity of designers and engineers, (there are powered chairs, racing chairs, stair climbing chairs, and lots more) - but still lacking a bit of lateral thinking and some insight into the idea of "optional extras"?

That's what 11-year-old Kayleigh Coxhead thought. She is a Year 6 pupil at Matley primary in Peterborough, and her wheelchair design has just won her the top prize - pound;1000 and stationery worth pound;250 for her school, plus a camera and a choice of books for herself - in a competition run by Mobility Roadshow. She was presented with her award by the paralympic athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson.

"We had to design something that would be suitable for a person with disabilities, " says Kayleigh, "I decided on a better wheelchair. I just thought they weren't as much fun as they could be for children - a bit boring in fact."

Kayleigh's design is intended simply to add a bit of fun to the ordinary wheelchair - more colour, and lots of gadgets.

"I talked to my friend Daria, who uses a wheelchair, and came up with some ideas. I thought of having a CD player in the headrest (it would have to be waterproof), a drinks holder with a tube going to the person's mouth, a locker for luggage and its own folding ramp."

What's really intriguing about Kayleigh's story, though, emerges when you ask why and how it is that an 11-year-old, not a wheelchair user herself, can be so aware of the preferences of a person with mobility needs. The answer lies in the school she attends, which is rather special - although not, as everyone's quick to point out, a special school.

Sue Parkin, Matley's learning support manager, is very emphatic about this.

"This is a mainstream primary school, but we have enhanced provision for children with physical disabilities."

Opened in the early 1980s, Matley was designed from the ground up to be accessible to wheelchairs - there are wide corridors, bigger than normal classrooms, wide electrically powered doors, a physiotherapy room and accessible toilets. Matley also has a hydrotherapy pool which is used by other schools.

Because of its facilities, Matley takes wheelchair-using children from across the city (12 at present) through referral or by parental choice.

Each child has individual needs, but all are judged able to cope with the primary curriculum.

The 12 pupils' needs are managed by Sue Parkin and another learning support teacher, with 12 teaching assistants. (Sue Parkin's team is separate from Matley's SEN provision, although clearly there's a great deal of consultation and co-operation.) The benefits both for the children who use wheelchairs and for the others are there to be seen in the easy and unremarkable way that they interact with each other. The average young child in a mainstream primary, unless he or she has some experience within the family, might find it difficult at first to be entirely relaxed with a wheelchair user, especially if there are other issues - of visual impairment, perhaps, or language.

Walking around Matley school, though, you pass little scenarios all the time where exactly the desired kind of easy give and take is going on, among children who have absorbed through simple everyday experience the appropriate attitudes, body language and interactive skills. It's inclusion in action, lifted off the page of a document and brought to life. And there's real hope in the thought that Kayleigh and her school friends will be voters and legislators one day. By then, perhaps, every primary will be like Matley.


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