The Government's consultation paper on selection is unlikely to affect a Midlands grant-maintained school. Harvey McGavin visits The Pingle, which reserves its first 20 places for special needs pupils. The Pingle School is an apparent contradiction in terms. Grant maintained by name but comprehensive by nature, its head teacher believes his pupils get the best of both worlds.
Pingle, in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, is unusual among GM schools indeed among all kinds of schools for a comprehensive ethos which makes less able children the priority. Its admissions policy reserves the first 20 places of each year's intake for children with moderate or severe learning difficulties, a kind of selection by disability.
Head teacher Mike Mayers would have it no other way, believing that GM schools shouldn't be labelled "bright kids only" any more than special needs children should be pigeonholed and put in separate units. "We see no logic, educationally, morally or socially in keeping children of different abilities apart," he says. "They have got to live together when they leave school so why do people have to put them in different boxes while they are at school?" There are around 80 SEN children at The Pingle, all with statements, out of a school roll of l050, and that figure will increase to l00 by 1997. Mike Mayers says the school's commitment to providing special needs education wouldn't be possible without the extra money grant-maintained status brought.
"We didn't go grant maintained for political reasons. It was totally pragmatic. We believed we could get better value for money and now nothing is lost on bureaucracy it has meant great advantages for the kids. If we had not gone grant maintained we would have had to sack four teachers."
Instead, seven more teachers have been taken on since going grant maintained in September 1993. Over two years, the school has also invested more than Pounds 100,000 in computers, reintroduced free music tuition, doubled the budget for books and equipment, and converted workshops into a maths room and Study centre.
A capital grant awarded just before Christmas will help towards the cost of three new classrooms and creates 31 new special needs places for the future. The school's new found autonomy has also enabled it to enter the property market. A 14-acre plot of land belonging to the school, which had lain unused for two decades under council control, is about to be sold for housing, raising an anticipated Pounds 750,000.
The special needs department now has an 18-person learning support team, twice what it used to be. Head of special needs Lynne Land, a teacher at the school for 20 years, has seen her department flourish in the last two. "In the past, people tended to think that students with special needs were one department's problem. But here they are seen as everybody's responsibility."
It's a popular policy. The school is oversubscribed and takes special needs children from the neighbouring counties of Leicestershire and Staffordshire. "They haven't got a provision like this," explains Lynne Land. "Parents don't want their children to be segregated and they would rather pay the extra transport costs to send them here."
As a mixed county comprehensive, The Pingle was the designated school for special needs children in South Derbyshire, with a separate self-contained unit for children with learning difficulties. There is a historic commitment made 20 years ago by the school's governors who persuaded the county to give them the special unit rather than building two new special schools in the vicinity. One feeder primary Springfield junior is the still the source of 60 per cent of special needs pupils.
In spite of leaving local authority control, The Pingle continues to be cited in Derbyshire County Council's policy review as an example of good practice. Education committee chair Dave Wilcox says school and LEA have kept on friendly terms. "We have a good working relationship. We wouldn't want to let our political views on grant-maintained status to interfere detrimentally with the education of our children."
Integration seems to work for both sets of students, helping special needs children to adapt and giving them access to facilities they probably wouldn't enjoy at a special school. Mainstream children some of whom take part in a mentoring scheme run by staff become more understanding and aware.
Whether training with the football team, using the computer room, or gaining some on-site work experience with the school caretaker, special needs children can now be found all over the school. Wheelchair access exists in many areas and there is a plan for further improvement. It's a kind of education that doesn't necessarily reflect well in statistics, but Mike Mayers believes it's more valuable than a place in the premier league of school tables.
"People do have a fear of what having special needs children would do to league table positions. We have doubled the number of kids with 5 GCSEs at A-C (recorded as 31 per cent in the l995 tables). Being grant maintained has helped a bit because we have had more books and materials. But it would be substantially higher just above the national average instead of just below it if it wasn't for the fact that we have special needs kids."
As it is, the school has its fair share of academic excellence, with two pupils from the 120-strong sixth form winning places at Cambridge last year. But the staff are just as proud of children at the other end of the scale, like Michael, whose achievements are no less dramatic. His family spoke only Cantonese at home and he arrived at the school shy and withdrawn, with very little English. Now he is bright and animated. "His social development has been phenomenal," says Mike Mayers, who rewarded the 17-year-old's progress with the head teacher's prize last year.
Eric Kinston, a member of the school board on and off for the last 25 years and now chair of governors, has seen a lot of changes at the school. He says that the biggest of them all a change in status did not meet with complete approval and the vote in favour of opting out was a close run thing.
"I think there were some doubts among parents when we went grant maintained but I don't think there are now. Parents feel much more involved and are very supportive. Everybody's very proud of the school."