'Small is effective'

4th February 2005 at 00:00
A new special schoolin a converted church building could be a model for the future, writes Carolyn O'Grady

On the fringes of Hindhead in Surrey, tucked among trees, is a pretty church with a small bell tower. Behind this quaint, ecclesiastical exterior is a school. Designed to meet the needs of children with hemiplegia cerebral palsy and moderate learning difficulties, Stepping Stones (right and below) has only two pupils, both 13. This year more will join because the school has achieved HMI approval to cater for 25 pupils from 11 to 16.

Inside the immaculately refurbished building (there is full disabled access, a fitted students' kitchen, a teachers' area, a physiotherapy room and cinema), the church's old organ stands alongside hi-tech equipment, including wireless-based Apple laptops equipped with webcams with which children as young as 10 can make their own productions. Soon a steerable webcam will be placed in the turret so the children can conduct their own projects on the weather.

Pupils will attend some lessons at local mainstream and special schools, while local schools and community groups will be encouraged to come to Stepping Stones. There are plans for virtual links with other groups of learners via high-speed broadband connections and large wall screens.

Outside, the overgrown garden has been transformed: there is a gazebo and paths wide enough for wheelchairs along which children can also use three-wheeled scooters (a good way for hemiplegic children to get around).

There will soon be a platform with wheelchair access hung between two trees.

Stepping Stones is the creation of Sandy Seagrove and Larry Sullivan, whose daughter Amy, one of the two pupils, has hemiplegia, a mild cerebral palsy which affects one side of the body and is caused by damage to part of the brain. One in 1,000 children in the UK are hemiplegic. The couple decided to buy, fund the refurbishment, equip, and run the school after they failed to find satisfactory provision for Amy in state and independent schools.

"Hemiplegic children's needs are often complex and not immediately apparent, so this is a type of child who is often neglected," says Sandy.

The couple envisage that in the early years operational funding will largely come from charitable trusts and business, but hope eventually local education authorities will fund placements.

Neither of the two founders are educationists, and the direction of the school, they say, will be heavily influenced by the trustees: Caroline Coles, author and adviser to government on inclusion, and Anne Hayes, former mainstream head, now an Ofsted inspector.

Another trustee is Professor Stephen Heppell of Ultralab (see story, left).

He compares Stepping Stones with the many "tiny, community-located, bespoke schools", which have sprung up in the United States, and argues that "one impact of new technology is to allow tiny schools to be really effective".

At Stepping Stones, Ultralab will be exploring how the distance-defeating communication and increased networking that modern technology allows can widen the horizons of a small rural school. The school also hopes to disseminate its own specialised knowledge. For example, eventually any hemiplegic child with broadband access could log on to its website to receive step by step instructions on where to find and how to play a one-handed recorder.

Apart from developing creative skills and sharing learning through technology, the school's main objectives are to improve self-esteem and provide more mundane, but very important, life skills, said teacher Victoria Whiteford, who has adapted the national curriculum to the needs of the pupils. "It needs to be real for these children," she says.

That morning her pupils had gone out to buy food equipped with a list and a budget. They then investigated eggs and what different cooking methods did to them, and were now cooking an omelette and chopping vegetables: a task requiring the physical dexterity and confidence that would have been impossible a few months ago, says Victoria.

Useful websiteswww.steppingstones.org.uk www.hemihelp.org.uk

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