Moor House school is pioneering visual approaches to speech, writes Diana Hinds
Founded in 1947 by a leading neurologist and a speech therapist, Moor House school in Oxted, Surrey, was the first school of its kind for children with severe specific disorders of speech and language. It is a non-maintained and fully residential special school, with 80 children on its roll, aged from seven to 16.
Because there are still only about a dozen such schools in the country, children come from 35 local authorities - from Scotland to Devon and Cornwall. But with the rise of inclusion, more parents are having to fight, through tribunals, to get special education for their children at Moor House.
Increasingly, the children who receive places have complex special needs.
As well as significant difficulties with speech, language and communication, these children often have co-ordination problems and may be severely dyspraxic.
Some have milder forms of autistic spectrum disorders, and for others, emotional and behavioural difficulties may have arisen out of the frustrations they have experienced at previous schools. Some have learning difficulties. But in the main, these children have intellectual abilities within the average range, and some leave Moor House with a clutch of GCSEs - including English. About half, with support, are able to go on to mainstream sixth-form colleges.
Moor House offers these children a well-resourced education, geared specifically to their learning needs, complemented by therapeutic support from a team of speech and occupational therapists, and backed up by care staff. Most children go home to their families at weekends.
"It's a 24-hour approach," says Lynne Birrell, acting head of therapy.
"We're all on site, and every member of the team knows everything about the children."
Alan Bathe, deputy principal, cites the case of one boy, admitted to the school in September 2000, aged 11, with a reading age of six-and-a-half.
Now, this same boy, aged 14, has a reading age of 16.
"That, in a nutshell, is Moor House school," says Bathe. Clearly, not every child makes quite such exceptional progress. But overall, in government performance tables, the value added by Moor House places it in the top 5 per cent of schools nationally.
"Inclusion is a great principle, and for many children it works very well," says Alan Robertson, the headteacher. "But we are picking up a lot of children who have been severely damaged by the experience of so-called inclusion - locational inclusion, rather than real inclusion. We are picking up the pieces."
Visitors to Moor House school are struck not only by the cheerfulness of the pupils, who are mostly boys, but by their politeness and pleasant conversation.
Pupils are likely to be two years behind the norm in terms of their emotional and language development, says Robertson, but the school works hard to raise their feelings of self-worth.
David, who is 14, says: "I used to be quiet before I came, and in my first year here. But now I feel a lot more confident about talking. The staff help me fit in with other people."
Small classes - an average size of eight to ten pupils - are one of the advantages, and each has a core team of a teacher, a special support assistant and a speech and language therapist.
Occupational therapists - the school has 1.9 full-time equivalents - work generally with small groups. Many of the children have short attention spans, but are strongly visual learners, and the classrooms abound in visual stimuli.
These include Thrass charts (www.thrass.co.uk), which support literacy and phonological awareness by displaying a colour-coded phoneme box for each sound in English; and a cued articulation system (www.stasspublications.co.uk), which provides a hand sign for each phoneme.
Pupils also use specialist speech and language computer software.
Robert, aged 16, who is in a key stage 4 English lesson, gives a convincing demonstration of how he uses his colour-coded dictionary and multi-sensory reading manual. "When I first started to read, it was very difficult: I couldn't read anything and I felt angry," he says. "I can actually read good books now. And I want to go to college, and be a mechanic."
Through the Surrey Education Business Partnership, the school runs a successful reading buddies scheme, in which council employees help with reading on a weekly basis. There is also a whole-school literacy programme, involving every member of staff, from the kitchen to the classroom, in regular reading sessions.
Children who have problems articulating words use the school's computerised electropalatography equipment - which is expensive and comparatively rare.
The child places a made-to-measure palate containing electrodes against the roof of their mouth, and by touching their tongue against different parts makes certain patterns light up on a computer screen.
This is valuable in teaching them to form the correct sounds in words, says speech and language therapist Susan Ebbels, although it takes considerable time for children to incorporate these sounds into everyday speech.
For children with difficulties understanding and using language, Ebbels has pioneered a system of coloured shape coding - the subject of her PhD, which was funded by the school - to help them see how the parts of a sentence fit together.
"We try to be outward-looking," says Lynne Birrell. "In the past two years our role as a special school has changed quite significantly, and there is a recognition now that we shouldn't be seen as insular, and that we should be sharing what we have here."
Moor House already has some links with mainstream schools, which it hopes to build on. For instance, it invites mainstream teachers in for specialist training (for example, Ebbels has trained others in shape coding), and, as she and her colleagues continue their studies, the school is widening the training it offers to outside teachers and therapists.
In addition, its occupational and speech therapists offer support and after-school sessions to mainstream schools.