Pride of place
The speech therapist is wearing a tiny pair of braces. They belong to Emma, four, who has insisted on the arrangement. She is also adamant about which pictures she wants to discuss and which she doesn't. The speech therapist is happy to concede: "When Emma first came here she hardly spoke at all; she's come a long way since then."
Emma has Down's syndrome. She is one of several children with special needs who attend Finton House, an independent mainstream primary school in Wandsworth. Her one-to-one sessions with the speech and language therapist are a normal part of Emma's school day. The rest of the time she is integrated into a class of 18 children, with support from a special needs assistant.
Finton House offers one place per class to a special needs candidate. In any one year, there may be children who are profoundly deaf, children with language development problems, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or severe learning difficulty. These spaces are highly sought after, so the children are assessed before selection. They must be capable of coping in a mainstream environment without holding up the other children. The staff must be confident of meeting all their needs. And, most importantly, they must be able to benefit themselves from integration.
"What children like Emma gain from being mainstream is that we have higher expectations for them," says headteacher Terry O'Neill. "They realise they're not able to shout out more than any other child or behave inappropriately, and they learn by what their mainstream peers are doing. What they're learning, in fact, are the social skills that will fit them for society. Equally importantly, the other children develop a greater depth and understanding of children with special needs. They learn, not to treat them differently or mother them, but to mix as they would with any other member of the school. "
The children in Kati's class are learning that integration can be fun. Kati, six, is profoundly deaf, and her classmates have quickly discovered that sign language is a great way of outwitting parents! They are also learning, instinctively, to be sensitive and supportive people. They tap her on the shoulder when they want to speak, they turn her face if someone's talking to her, and help remove her radio aids at the end of a class.
Founded in 1987, Finton House has always held a strong policy on "inclusive education", a commitment reflected in its staffing. A full-time speech and language therapist is based at the school, providing therapy and co-ordinating a team of assistants. Support is also brought in: an educational psychologist, a clinical psychiatrist, a consultant community paediatrician, a physiotherapist, a peripatetic teacher for the deaf, an occupational therapist and a visual impairment teacher.
"You have to be committed to integration if you're going to make it work, " says Ms O'Neill. "You've got to have the right attitude towards what you're doing - you've got to have the backup and the support."
The special needs assistants and therapists work closely with teachers. All therapy is kept within the school day, so timetables are minutely organised. Weekly meetings cover upcoming lessons: concepts taught, materials used, and how these may need to be adapted.
Says special needs co-ordinator Caroline Carter: "There's a lot of planning that has to happen, and a lot of communication. I expect a great deal from my team, and it is hard work, but it's also very stimulating and worth it. I think the best thing that comes out of it is that these children will never be frightened of disability. They are perfectly accepting that a child who has quite marked disabilities is just another child."
Imogen is in her fifth year at Finton House. At the age of two she caught a virus and developed a deficiency of oxygen in her tissues. It left her quadriplegic, visually impaired and with no speech. She has since made a remarkable recovery and is now a chatty, determined child who walks with the aid of sticks, and keeps up with her class both academically and socially.
The support she receives at school is phenomenal. Every line in her handwriting book has to be coloured so she can see it. All exams must be written clearly into an A4 book with colour coding, and just the right amount of information must be imparted on each page. As writing is difficult for Imogen, she takes lessons in keyboard skills, and she has support from a special needs assistant in every class she attends.
Integration is giving Imogen the best possible start, allowing her to reach her full potential in life, says Ms Carter. "She mixes with her mainstream peers quite naturally, because they know her and they're sensitive to her needs, so she feels completely secure here. At the same time, we are careful not to make it too cosy, too easy. We have high expectations for her."
The emphasis is on independence. As pupils move up the school they are encouraged to work with less supervision. "With Imogen, we've now got to the stage where we can start her off and leave her to work on her own in class, " Ms Carter explains. The advantage of this approach becomes apparent when the children leave: "If, by the time they go to their next school, they are used to working on their own within a group, and they can organise their own timetables, it gives them an edge."
Finding secondary placements is the biggest hurdle parents and staff face. Terry O'Neill believes there is a place for special needs children in mainstream secondary education, but it takes commitment. "Just dropping a special needs child into a class where children have no idea how to integrate doesn't work because that child will get isolated. Staff have to make it work by explaining to the children what the child's needs are and helping them overcome what is a very natural fear."
While she recognises that many schools simply don't have the funding or support to accept children with special needs, she remains a firm advocate of integration: "People with disabilities have a tremendous struggle to be accepted, and the sooner we educate children in school to understand disability, the sooner the attitude in society will change."