Clare Jenkins finds a special school that offers non-verbal pupils a new voice. The sound of children singing greets the visitor to Millwood School in Bury, Lancashire. A dozen or so children, together with teachers and nursery nurses, are performing a rap version of The Little Red Hen.
In the multi-sensory room, with its underwater theme, infants with profound and multiple learning difficulties are rolling round on a blue mattress staring up at silver fish mobiles and gently flashing lights while music plays.
In a couple of classrooms, other children, with moderate learning difficulties, are talking to each other via CB radios. "Say hello, Scott. " "Who's that?" "Say you want to speak to Davora."
The first two activities are part of the routine at Bury's only special primary school. The CB event is new, and part of Millwood's first Communication Week, the latest in a series of theme weeks.
As well as using CB radio, the children have gone behind the scenes at Manchester University's Contact Theatre, made music with members of the Halle Orchestra, and have been entertained with magic, puppets, face-painting and juggling. They've also followed a Makaton symbol trail (based on the British sign language alphabet), read Braille books and watched non-verbal videos like Mr Bean.
The aim is not just to entertain, but to educate children, staff and parents alike. "The most important benefit," says headteacher Bernard Emblem, "is to raise awareness of the importance of fostering non-verbal communication, because a lot of the children here are without any spoken language. Others are just developing early social and interaction skills. So it can help us in future to pick up on their non-verbal skills, the earliest form of communication. And, if we understand them better, we can foster wider communication skills."
He says of the special week: "It's learning through doing. It's also a way of inspiring people from outside." So Alan Haydock from the Halle - who already ran a project with the 80-pupil school - worked on familiar stories and poems using sound and lighting effects. A GCSE drama group from St Gabriel's High School in Bury did a workshop on miming feelings. Pupils from Elton primary school taught action songs.
Barbara Rossington is the chief speech therapist for paediatrics in Bury, and helped to organise the week. "One of the problems for speech therapists in education is isolation. Because this is a joint project, it's helped relationships," she said. Not just between herself and the school, but also among staff - there are 13 teachers and 12 nursery nurses, plus ancillary staff - and parents, who were all encouraged to become involved.
She said: "Instead of looking at the children's lack of ability, we're looking at their skills and how to develop them. And it's increased staff knowledge of non-verbal communication and its importance. It's seen as a second-rate skill, which it isn't. Facial expressions can be very important, so we're getting the children to use them better so they can be better communicated." Links with other schools and outside agencies are particularly important, she believes. "There's a lot of ignorance in the general public about children with special needs. This is part of educating the next generation that they are not to be feared."