Raymond Ross reports on how one Edinburgh primary school sets targets for pupils with special educational needs
To raise achievement in pupils with special educational needs (SEN), you have to have quality learning," says Scott Meal, headteacher at Davidson's Mains primary in Edinburgh. His school has developed strategies to help pupils with special needs achieve above national targets.
"Basically, you need to know how the brain works and vary teaching methods. Lessons must be structured with a definite beginning and end and that includes time for going over the main points."
Pupils with special needs are taught here in mainstream classes, with the two learning support teachers involved in team teaching. "Only when it is necessary, do pupils go to the learning support area.
"Learning support teachers will also take the most able pupils at some point, to let all pupils see that learning support is about enrichment and extension," says Mr Meal.
Integration, or inclusion, is central to the school's strategy. "Special needs must be seen as part of the philosophy of achievement for all and we celebrate this. If a pupil is achieving well on their own level, we recognise and celebrate it. As head, I'll congratulate them in school assembly or in class and we always send a letter home to parents."
A mainstream school with 604 pupils on the roll and 80 in nursery, Davidson's Mains has five children with a record of needs and a further 10 in support for specific learning difficulties.
"We have individual educational plans for those with a record of needs and are in the process of extending them to those with specific educational needs. Where a pupil is making slow progress we 'chunk' it down to specifics and set out what that pupil will achieve, using educational psychology and other agencies we will meet with parents.
"We have individual educational plans in nursery, carefully built in so that it doesn't disrupt the nursery ethos," says Mr Meal.
The management team, including the head, teaches with learning support in a broad band setting, and additional learning support time is given to early years.
"We have an early intervention programme in P1 and P2 concentrating on reading and numeracy difficulties. It is preventative and specific. For example, a child may show rhyming disability but can still read well in other areas.
"Early support like this has cut down the number of pupils who need continuous support. If you take progression from P3 to P4, the numbers needing continuous support have been reduced from around 15 or 20 to six."
A programme of high challenge without threat informs the strategy. "We set specific targets, giving the pupils something at their interest level and ability. If a pupil is seven years old but has a reading level of P1, you don't want to discourage or embarrass them, so you use texts designed specificaly for these and for similar problems in maths."
The school also uses "goal setting" at the start of each session, which specifies themes and expected levels of achievement for the individual pupil and is agreed by parents. On the consent form pupils also list three goals important to them, and the school works to ensure that they achieve these too. Every January each pupil writes "a wee report about themselves", the outcomes for each being graded according to ability and maturity.
"This is especially relevant to pupils with SEN, because it allows them to write about themselves and school, and to begin to analyse themselves by asking questions like What am I good at? Where am I improving? For the very poorest we would scribe," says Mr Meal.
But the basic integration takes place in class. "Lessons should be varied in teaching styles, particularly for pupils with SEN, because they tend to have short concentration spans and can be more visual and kinesthetic - they understand better by doing.
"We always let the pupils drink water to hydrate the brain before they learn something new. We use brain gym, exercises which make sure both sides of the brain are working together. Those who can use both sides learn quicker.
"Your predominant learning style becomes your predominant teaching style, so we always have a mix of oral, visual and kinesthetic elements during each lesson," says Mr Meal.
The lesson "cycle" is to give the big picture first: what the pupils are going to learn, how it relates to what they learned the day before and how it will relate to what they will learn the next day. "Then we 'chunk' down the lesson into the oral, visual and kinesthetic activities and build in time for review," says Mr Meal.
During review, teachers adopt a "traffic light" system. If a pupil doesn't understand the lesson, they declare "red light" to allow the teacher to go back over problems. A pupil who declares "amber" has understood but not everything. A pupil who declares "green" has to explain to others.
The varied approach and the traffic lights are particularly relevant to pupils in learning support. "The kinesthetic element is very important, because often these pupils like to move. So, we use songs and rap to help them learn as well," says Mr Meal. Finally, special notes are issued for parents on "The Secrets of Memory and Recall".
* Engage the learner actively;
* Review regularly and purposefully;
* Use more beginnings and endings; l Reinforce visually; l Connect to what is known;
* More tests not fewer; l Model the techniques yourself.
PUPILS' GUIDE TO MEMORISE
* Learn little bits at a time;
* Learn and rehearse by putting it into a sequence; l Rehearse the information for short periods lots of times;
* Memorise in lots of different ways;
* Share, test, teach someone else.