Seismic jolt

17th June 2005 at 01:00
A school in Gloucestershire has formed links with a special needs centre in the Philippines in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. Martin Whittaker reports

Visit St Rose's School and the first thing to strike you is its global outlook. Every classroom has work on display related to the school's partnership countries. Pupils correspond with pen friends via post and email, cook and sample foreign dishes, listen to music from their partner countries, learn about global citizenship and go on foreign trips. All particularly impressive given that this is a special school whose children have a range of physical disabilities and learning difficulties - some with profound and multiple learning difficulties.

The nature of its foreign links is also unusual. Not only has it collaborated with schools in Europe, St Rose's is now forging a partnership with a special school in the Philippines.

This international dimension permeates the curriculum. Penny Fayter, head of languages and international coordinator, says: "When I started at the school, I used to get comments like 'why do our children need to learn another language? What's the point of it?' But as our international work has developed, it's changed people's minds. When you teach children like ours, they are learning in a different way. They're learning to communicate and communication comes in many different ways, whether art, or music, or learning a different language."

St Rose's School is a non-maintained Roman Catholic special school run by Dominican sisters in Stroud, Gloucestershire, with pupils aged from two to 18. Its international work began in 1998 when special schools in France and the former East Germany were seeking similar schools to link with in the UK. St Rose's led a Comenius project, funded by the British Council.

The link enabled the schools in each country to work jointly on a range of projects, including art exhibitions and recipe exchanges, while staff and pupils visited partner schools in France and Germany.

Through Stroud's twinning links, St Rose's also teamed up with another special school, in Goettingen, Germany. Two years ago, Penny Fayter was asked to join a group of educationalists on a trip to Lithuania and, as a result, St Rose's now has another partner school in Vilnius. But the most unusual of all these partnerships is with the Holy Trinity Special Education Foundation in Pampanga near the volcanic Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. A former school, it was damaged during the volcano's devastating eruption in 1992 and had to close. It reopened as a foundation for children and young people with learning difficulties.

The partnership began last year when the English and Philippine heads met at a Dominican conference in Rome. The Stroud school launched the partnership with support from the British Council and Gloucestershire LEA's International Education Office.

After St Rose's hosted a visit from Holy Trinity's head, Penny Fayter paid a reciprocal visit to Pampanga in February. It gave her the chance to compare notes on special education in both countries.

She was shocked by the lack of provision for children with special needs.

Sixty per cent of Philippinos live on or below the poverty line. While the government offers free education for all, in reality there is no extra funding for wheelchairs, equipment or care assistants.

"If the family is poor and cannot afford these extras, then their child with special needs does not usually attend school beyond age eight or nine.

Many do not go to school at all," she says.

Yet Penny says there are still lessons for schools such as St Rose's. For example, Holy Trinity has its own garden, which is tended by pupils: "In the morning they don't have lessons - the children and young people go gardening. They dig up their own vegetables and make their own food."

Though it is still early days for the partnership, St Rose's School aims to develop a joint programme involving the Philippine foundation with its other European link schools, developing joint curriculum projects and visits for staff, and exploring how it can support its Philippine partner and share good practice on both sides.

For example, St Rose's occupational therapist, Ella Gibson, will spend three months next year working as a volunteer at Holy Trinity. St Rose's is also exploring the possibility of organising visits for pupils.

The impact of the school's international dimension is felt in each class.

The school offers French, German and Latin, but now some pupils can also greet visitors in Lithuanian. In the school's post-16 residential unit, one student is making a video of the unit to send to Holy Trinity in the Philippines. And teacher Stuart Gent has been introducing his group of pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties to Lithuanian and Philippine music and food.

Some children in the group can only communicate by blinking or eye contact, but the international approach has brought new dimensions to their classes, says Stuart. "We have done the music, we have done taste. We can look at games and activities, and toys from the different countries. So in that sense it's been great. From a normal lesson, suddenly you can make a fruit pizza."

"It's been another vehicle for addressing skills," he says. "Some of these children have severe and profound disabilities and are looking to build skills over years. This gives us a different opportunity to learn to use and build those skills.


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