Smells, sounds, feels like Friday

30th May 2008 at 01:00
A Glasgow school for children with complex additional support needs won high praise in its HMIE report for its innovative methods to help pupils communicate. Elizabeth Buie reports

A Glasgow school for children with complex additional support needs won high praise in its HMIE report for its innovative methods to help pupils communicate. Elizabeth Buie reports

On the first day of the school week, pupils at Croftcroighn School in Glasgow hear their special Monday song, sniff their special Monday smell, and touch their special Monday texture.

The same routine - part of "hello time" - is repeated for the rest of the week, but with different scents, textures and songs, to help the pupils, particularly those on the autistic spectrum, get a sense of routine and the passage of time. The scent of camomile or peppermint, or the feel of feathers or velvet, has come to signify a certain day of the week to children who normally live only for that moment.

This is only one of many programmes that won high praise from HMIE this week, when inspectors awarded the special school five "excellent", or sector-leading, gradings and described the remaining 11 areas of inspection as "very good".

Croftcroighn's 43 pupils, plus eight who attend part-time in nursery, have complex additional support needs, ranging from cognitive and physical impairments to sensory and communication difficulties. A high proportion are autistic.

Staff have been concentrating on improving their communication and language programme and this work has been highlighted by inspectors as an example of sector-leading practice from which many other schools could learn.

Margaret McFadden, the school's head, has led a focus on communication and language within the school over the past three years. These are the central tenet to the children's learning, she believes. The decision to prioritise this area has clearly paid off. Some children have far exceeded expectations and are able to read independently; others may not have reached that goal, but have nevertheless made far greater progress than anticipated.

The school development team spent an intense year looking at ways to improve their existing programme. Among a number of strategies they devised was the creation of a comprehensive vocabulary of symbols that are used consistently across the school. Mrs McFadden calls it "a lexicon" to ensure continuity. Staff created a core vocabulary of symbols, customising those commonly used on "Boardmaker", so that pupils recognise them as they move from class to class. As some pupils do not understand symbols, they also provide concrete objects.

Language, therefore, works on three levels: at the upper level, for instance, "head teacher" is spelt out in words; at the next level is a picture showing the head at her desk; and at the lowest level is a notebook, which symbolises Mrs McFadden, because she goes round every class every day making notes on each child's progress. If a teacher wanted a pupil with poor language skills to go to the head's office, she would give him or her a notebook - a symbol of where they have to go - and he or she would place the notebook in a plastic "drop box" at the head's door, to symbolise arrival.

"It is a very layered approach - a hierarchical communication approach," says Mrs McFadden.

She acknowledges that other schools follow similar ideas, but thinks that HMIE was impressed by Croftcroighn's rigour and consistency of approach.

ICT resources are used widely to support emergent reading and writing, including a programme which produces a symbol to represent words that have been typed in. It is just one of many "hooks" into literacy used, including an adaptation of the Oxford Reading Tree scheme by principal teacher Aileen McIntyre. She has made books with symbols for characters such as Biff and Chip, and familiar objects. Thanks to this resource, "we have children reading who would never have read before", says Mrs McFadden.

Mrs McIntyre is trying to find a financial backer to allow her to produce the resource commercially, as she is convinced it can make a real breakthrough in literacy for some children. CALL Scotland, the communication access, literacy and learning centre, at Edinburgh University, has recognised its potential.

For children who cannot write, there is the option to record stories which accompany photographs or books, so that they can create "talking books".

One pupil from Poland can now communicate using his personal book of symbols; another child, who has respiratory problems because he was born without a nose, cannot speak, but now communicates with his own book of symbols.

The inspiration for Croftcroighn's work comes from the children around them and research outside, including the Centre for Concrete Communication in Belgium and the work by academic Flo Longhorn into multi-sensory learning for children with cognitive difficulties.

The HMIE report sums it up: "The overall quality of achievement in communication and language was excellent."

CALL Scotland, page 12.

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