The SEN school with a business empire

25th February 2011 at 00:00
Entrepreneurship helps build pupils' self-esteem, says the head of last year's TES Outstanding Special Needs School

With international links stretching as far as Africa, few can deny St Christopher's in Wrexham is a truly global school. But 17 years ago, when headteacher Maxine Pittaway took charge, her challenges were rather closer to home.

Few of the special needs school's 170 pupils went on to college or a career and the local community took little notice of it. But nearly two decades on it is the pride of the North Wales town.

Now every pupil leaves with some kind of qualification. It is this fact, and a host of other impressive achievements, that wowed the judges of last year's TES Schools Awards (TESSAs), who named St Christopher's Outstanding Special Needs School of the Year.

Teachers are still "over the moon" about winning the prize, according to Mrs Pittaway, and they are proud to have highlighted success in special educational needs (SEN) teaching in Wales.

"It's amazing what children can achieve given the opportunity," says Mrs Pittaway. "We offer a far bigger breadth of qualifications - around 39 different courses at the moment - and 119 awards were given to children last year. Some of my staff used to be my pupils."

The closure of two nearby special needs schools has meant St Christopher's now has 250 pupils aged six to 19, making it the largest special school in Wales. It has junior, middle and senior departments, plus a specialist behaviour unit for children with autism.

"We are going from strength to strength and getting the award hasn't meant we have stood still," says Mrs Pittaway. "We like embracing change, we are all enthusiastic."

Teachers also run courses for disabled adults living locally and support children with SEN who go to mainstream schools.

About 60 per cent of pupils qualify for free school meals and teachers spend a lot of time building their pupils' self-esteem.

"When I arrived at the school, my aim was to involve the community more," Mrs Pittaway says. "Pupils must experience real life and feel a full part of their town.

"I wanted to open the eyes of local people so they could see what we do and how it is positive rather than negative. We've embraced everything around us."

Teachers encourage pupils to be entrepreneurs. For example, children run their own Millennium Eco Centre, which has more than 16,000 visitors each year, as well as a Fairtrade shop, a hair and beauty salon, a car valet service, a woodcraft business, a furniture exchange and a "recycle a bicycle" scheme.

All this has been possible without a purpose-built building. The old St Christopher's site was sold to make way for an Asda superstore 11 years ago. Teachers refused to move to a purpose-built special school, which they feared would resemble a "hospital". Instead they took over a vacant secondary school.

St Christopher's is also involved in education projects in South Africa, Nigeria and other parts of Europe. Teachers share curriculum materials with colleagues across the world and supply sports equipment to South African schools.

They also run exchange trips with school staff from South Africa. St Christopher's teachers travelled to the country last year and their counterparts will arrive in Wrexham later this year, while pupils from an Italian school will visit next month.

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