Innovation is the watchword at award-winning Newhills School. Eleanor Caldwell reports on a special needs standard bearer
The pupil council at Newhills School in Easterhouse, Glasgow is a force to be reckoned with. The roll of 50 secondary pupils with complex learning difficulties is strongly represented by the council, which conducts monthly meetings with headteacher Mary Mimnagh.
The 11 elected members, including a chairman, secretary, the headboy and headgirl, have taken on important issues and achieved improvements. For example, criticisms of rattly old buses that were cold in winter and hot in summer have led to a fleet of five colourful new buses with air conditioning and music.
Dinner menus and the cost of soup and sandwiches have been renegotiated with the cook at nearby St Rose of Lima Primary. Discussions about lunchtime activities led to a group of pupils going on a shopping trip to Glasgow to purchase DVDs and CDs.
Trips like this are extremely important for pupils with complex learning difficulties. "It would be too easy not to let the young people go and they would learn nothing," says Mrs Mimnagh. "But on a short trip into town, they are communicating with others, coping with money and are out and about and visibly active in the community."
The pupil council is just one initiative among many that recently won the school a Careers Scotland Gold Award for Enterprise.
Newhills' approach is strongly focused on developing pupils' key life skills. "Enterprise work provides an ideal link between school and adult life," says Mrs Mimnagh. "Our pupils have a wide range of ability and we are constantly addressing the issue of life beyond school."
One area of enterprise education - display of knowledge - was addressed in a novel way, with a group of eight S3 pupils devising, producing and acting out a series of funny sketches on different aspects of independent living and safety issues, such as falling over the vacuum cleaner flex if you don't put it away or what can happen if you leave a cigarette end in the wrong place.
S4 pupils did more traditional entrepreneurial work, stocking and running the school tuck shop. All pupils were involved in market research about popular items. For non-verbal youngsters, preferences were officially indicated by smiles and other expressions. For non-readers, a digital camera identified and recorded key products for purchase. The pupils went to the Cash amp; Carry and dealt with all the transactions themselves, then reached a collective decision about how to spend the tuck shop profits.
The S4 pupils also looked at enterprise from the point of view of different people's jobs, work shadowing dinner hall staff, the janitor and the school secretary.
A key enterprise event for S6 pupils is the annual leavers' assembly.
Pupils work within a budget to organise the event, issue invitations and prepare programmes and food, all of which helps their skills by devolving responsibility.
Mrs Mimnagh believes that Newhills pupils are developing higher levels of self-esteem and confidence through handling responsible roles within the life of the school. "We're constantly pushing back barriers," she says.
The approach is part of a two-pronged attack.
Staff at Newhills operate within a structured planning system. Every teacher has a laptop computer and each lesson taught is recorded and logged for use in following years. Mrs Mimnagh believes this gives the continuity of approach necessary to instil confidence in the pupils and staff.
"We want our young people to leave with a sense of their positive future beyond school," she says. "If they have a sound grasp of basic life skills, they will have a level of confidence which will serve to make them economically viable as young adults."
Pupils are taught interviewing skills within a work context and are also involved in their own review meetings. Each young person has his or her own review meeting book for which they must take responsibility.
"The school regards every pupil as a valued member of the community," says Mrs Mimnagh. The challenge is to ensure the community does the same.