Having a blind pupil on roll transforms a school's approach to learning. In the second extract from her forthcoming book on life in a King's Cross primary, Wendy Wallace unpicks the intricacies of inclusion
Twenty-five children teem on to a Camden council bus for a swimming trip and travel north out of Somers Town, shouting "canal" as the bus lurches over the bridge over the Grand Union. At the pool, they crowd into echoing, tiled changing rooms, school swimming bags slung over their shoulders.
Maharun, in a pink costume with frills around the hips, jumps up and down with excitement. "Pink to make the boys wink," says her teacher, Mireille Alwan.
The noise level rises further once the children get into the pool; splashing mixes with the bark of the instructor, the cries of children, the slap of hands hitting the water's surface. Mireille is in the water too, in tracksuit trousers and T-shirt over her costume; Maharun swims doggy paddle towards the sound of her voice. "Watch me!" she calls to special needs assistant Sue Garrett, her plaits floating behind her. She makes her way to and fro across the pool, doing widths to the sound of Mireille's continuous encouragement. She misses out on swimming in the holidays, says Sue. "But that goes for a lot of these children."
Maharun, blind since birth, joined Edith Neville school at the age of three and is both a special and an ordinary member of the school. Known by everybody, celebrated for her musical ability, she is a familiar sight making her way along the corridors with one hand on the arm of her assistant, or out in the playground playing catch, hopping from foot to foot, head tilted. Now in Year 4, she is nine years old and learning to use a white stick to give her independent mobility.
Edith Neville is small and on one level, which makes it easier for Maharun to navigate than some of Camden's big old Victorian schools might have been. But staff have had to re-educate themselves in order to be able to teach her. In numeracy hour, as the class counts out loud in threes, fours, then fives, her voice is one of the most confident. When Mireille Alwan, a young Lebanese Australian who has been teaching in England for two years, moves on to teaching Venn diagrams - holding up a piece of paper on which there are two overlapping circles - Sue Garrett puts two large plastic rings in front of Maharun, sticking them down on to the table so that she has her own tactile Venn diagram firmly in place in front of her. Maharun begins to read with her fingertips. "What's this?" she asks, encountering the hinge joining the two halves of the ring.
Maharun is the first one on her table to sort out the numbers and give them their allotted place in the overlapping circles. While the other children write their numbers floating in the large spaces on the diagram, she sticks her braille ones down close to the plastic rims. She is chosen to distribute the maths exercise books; every child's book has a braille sticker of their name underneath the line on which it is written. "I'm so happy," she says to Mireille, when she sits down again. "Thank you for letting me give out the books."
After break, she begins her acrostic poem with the rest of the children, working on a clanking machine like an old-fashioned typewriter, her Perkins brailler. She rubs out the first word, flattening the dots back down into the paper. Later, as the class studies the ancient Greeks, Mireille talks through the video for her benefit. "You can see Greece is very mountainous, very green..." Maharun gets to hold two types of Greek vases, feel their narrow necks, the raised complex pattern on one of them, the rough, unglazed texture of the other. At break times, Maharun casts off from her adult helpers, negotiating the running figures and flying footballs of the playground with a classmate's hand on her arm, somehow emerging unscathed.
Maharun's brown prosthetic eyes are so realistic that when she focuses her attention on someone she appears to be looking right at them. But her blindness is total; born without eyes, she has no real concept of seeing, although she uses the vocabulary of sight unselfconsciously. She is different from the other children in her experience of life, but comfortably integrated with them. "They love her. And she loves them," is Mireille's estimate of the situation. When asked what she enjoys about school, Maharun does not hesitate. "Everything," she says.
School is at the centre of her life. She loves maths and spelling tests, and is an assiduous student, carrying home her brailler to do her homework on. Her memory is stocked with outings to the theatre, ice rink, zoo and city farms, with different teachers' accents (she has been taught by a Scot and now an Australian) and the music they introduced her to. She remembers the "mind the gap" announcement at Embankment underground station and the slimy feel of the fish she fed to a penguin at the zoo. She can be overwhelmed by noise; to hear teachers shouting is unpleasant for her, as is the racket in the dinner hall. "Too many voices hurt my ears," she says.
Maharun weighs small events side by side with large ones. The previous year, she sang at the Camden schools concert in the Albert Hall.
She describes the new salwar khameez she had for the occasion, the serum in her hair, the fish burger she ate afterwards at McDonald's - and the fact that she asked compere Jon Snow to get the audience to give her a second round of applause. "Jon Snow is my friend," she says. "He's from Channel 4 News."
A team of people make it possible for Maharun to attend a mainstream school. Camden's specialist teacher for the blind works with her class teacher and two special needs assistants to plan lessons and organise resources. Staff make braille worksheets for almost every lesson, sharing the single brailler with Maharun. Even standard textbooks are hard to find in braille and if they do exist there is usually a waiting list to borrow them from the RNIB library. Maharun is bright, remarks Sue Garrett, so they have to work harder.
Mireille Alwan considers every lesson in terms of how it will translate for Maharun. Maths is particularly difficult, because it is highly visual, and so much of the teaching takes place on the board. Art is challenging, unless it is three-dimensional. Literacy is the easiest thing to adapt for a blind child, but imaginative writing is hard for Maharun because of her limited life experience outside school. Having Maharun in the class has altered Mireille's teaching style; she cannot do spontaneous things or diverge from the lesson plan. "I would feel bad because Maharun wouldn't have that inclusion," she says.
Teachers can find that children with special needs have as much to teach them as the other way round. "Having Maharun in the class is the best experience I've ever had," says Mireille. "Having to be so organised, planning how to include her - it's such an eye-opener for me. Every time I see or do something outside school, I always think of Maharun."
Special needs assistant Ranue Bibi, who taught herself braille after she started working with Maharun, brailles some of the displays in the school corridors so that Maharun can read other children's poems and stories as she stands outside the dinner hall or the headteacher's office. Ranue made her a tactile dictionary, with raised pictures of apples, balls and cars - shaped in pipe cleaners - when the rest of the class got printed ones, and a three-dimensional map of Benin. She and Sue Garrett involve Maharun in sports day, the summer fair, the Christmas shows. They have tied a bell to the basketball net so she can know if she has scored, taught her to skip, walk on stilts and use her body to keep up a hula hoop. They discourage people from using Maharun for party tricks: standing in front of her saying, "Who am I? What's my name?" "We do our utmost," says Ranue Bibi.
"You can't just do bits and pieces. You have to go all the way."
Fiona Gillespie's high expectations of children are always in evidence, whether in the classroom or at an after-school club. More than 20 of the older children are waiting on benches in the school hall, to audition for the production of Snow White. "But," announces Fiona in melodramatic style, "it's a funny one!" Standing in front of them, in platform boots and dressed all in black, she asks: "What is the c-word?" All those who have ever been taught by her know the answer. "Commitment!" they shout. Without that, she warns, the production will fall apart.
Gozombor and Karim are vying for the part of narrator. Fiona sends them out into the lengthening shadows of the playground beyond the hall, to shout their chosen phrase - "the big fat man dropped" - from five then 10 then 20 metres. Two quiet girls go through the same procedure and find loud voices they never knew they had. Marcus is a natural, auditioning as the wicked stepmother. He sneers and growls in front of an imaginary mirror, commanding the space at the front of the hall and calling for his huntsmen to bring him Snow White's heart in a box. "And it ain't gonna be pumping," he informs his audience, with maximum menace. The children applaud and Fiona extends her hand. "Put it there, Marcus."
Fiona runs two drama clubs each week, one before school and one after. As well as language, movement, self-confidence, literature, art and music, it gives children "a chance to go somewhere else and to be someone else". This is something she knows the value of. The oldest of six children, she comes from a background unfamiliar to most teachers - but all too well understood by some of Edith Neville's children. Her father was an alcoholic and the family constantly on the move. Starting life in Scotland, Fiona was enrolled in seven primary schools in as many years and by the age of 11 found herself in the south-west of England, where her mother had fled to a women's refuge. She arrived at secondary school, she says, neglected, insecure and aggressive. She became a champion table tennis player; sport gave her an outlet for her anger.
Fiona went back to college in her early twenties, acquired O and A-levels and trained as a teacher. "I never saw myself as an academic type," she says, "because of my background and roots. But I discovered that I could relate to children that were needy. I've got a natural ability to do that and to say to them 'you can get out of this and become something and somebody'. In a school where the children had no problems, I wouldn't be in my element."
"Our job is to improve the life chances of the children in our care. That is what we are engaged in every day."
Teachers, nursery nurses and assistants are all crowded into a classroom, sitting round the low tables like proxy children while deputy head Helen Griffiths reminds them of the vision. "Never mind what Ofsted is telling us to do, and the local education authority, and the DfES. We all came to this school to make a difference to children here, in Somers Town. So what do we want in the year ahead?"
The staff recap on what has been positive about the year gone by: sports, the summer fair, Sats results, trips, assemblies, clubs, refugee week, new staff, parents' groups, interactive whiteboards, fresh flowers in reception. They brainstorm on what they would like to happen next year and come up with a wide-ranging - and budget-busting - list. More non-contact time, they decide, in which to plan and assess. New computers, laptops and printers. More clubs, games to play at lunchtimes. A chill-out room for children. Better dinners, toilets, drinking fountains.
Helen is in charge of the school improvement plan. She will be feeding staff views back to the governing body and as a governor herself is well aware of the financial constraints on the school. She tells everyone that to avoid feeling demoralised, overloaded and unsupported by colleagues, it is best to consider what changes they can effect themselves - "so we're not setting ourselves up for failure".
Amy Crowther's table look again at the item on top of their wish list, more money for trips. Trips don't have to cost money, they decide. The children generally lack outdoor experience, so even going to the shops or the park can be beneficial. They are already planning a trip to Princess Diana's memorial fountain in Hyde Park. They can use the underground for free. They begin to discuss making a booklet of ideas of things for parents to do with their children at the weekends.
"We recognise that we are a good school," Helen tells everyone, seriously.
"What we are involved with now is inching forward. And that is the hard bit."
Headteacher Se n O'Regan still awaits the brown envelope as the school year draws to a close. Ofsted "in abeyance" is not particularly helpful to the smooth running of the school, he says. "It is fully three calendar years I've been expecting a letter. It is an unhealthy distraction. You cannot keep up that level of adrenalin."
Se n has decisions to make after the inspectors finally do arrive. Promoted while still young, he has been head of Edith Neville for more than six years and is not yet 40. The question of how long he can do the job is unavoidable. He and Nasima (his wife and the school's Senco) have two young children and are keenly aware of their responsibilities to them too. "The basic model for successful heads is predicated on having no life and just working all hours," he says. "And I'm perpetuating it."
He went to the GP about his insomnia; the doctor advised him to take a "drug holiday" from school - just as he has advised the other five headteachers on his books to do. Se n went into the surgery with no intention of taking medication, but walked out with a prescription for a sleeping pill.
After lunch, Purple nursery has its mini-assembly. For nine children, it is their last day; they are moving up or on. Najreen, tall and confident, has gone from being petrified to being completely at home. Popular with the other girls, she chats in Bengali and her English is progressing. "I'm writing for you my name," she tells Francisca Fung, a foundation stage teacher, as she gets a piece of paper out of the handbag slung over her shoulder. And she does write her name, several times. It is hard to believe this is the same child who used to throw herself against the glass of the nursery door when her mother left.
JoJo is leaving too, moving on to another school after five terms at Edith Neville. Nicki, his mother, likes the uniform and thinks their strict approach to discipline might suit him.
In a plastic crate in the office, his school life is contained in a yellow folder that will accompany him to his new school.
Under the personal development section, it records neutrally that: "JoJo threw lots of sand on the floor and at children. When I spoke to him, he laughed and spat at me." "JoJo has continued to hurt his friends." That he has been tearful, kind, wanted his mum. His collages are here, and a photograph of him doing a jigsaw puzzle. His drawings take shape over the five terms he spends in Purple nursery. He moves from angry-looking tangles of lines to a Ninja Turtle series, the two huge faces of mummy and daddy, then a long-running series on Spiderman, the criss-crossed lines increasingly sure and steady. Nursery nurse Laura O'Donoghue is there too, recognisable by her gold hoop earrings and red mouth.
The file records his anger management strategy and a list of the books he has borrowed to take home. The last comment is on the great progress he has made, "especially in his emotional management".
Se n arrives to give out certificates for good attendance. JoJo, who has only attended two-thirds of the time, does not get one but Sultan comes to collect his, and shakes Se n's hand, then Samir - Se n and Nasima's son - who also shakes his father's hand. Samir has been voted by Purple nursery as their class representative to the school council.
When Se n has gone, the children gather on the carpet for a last story before going home. Staff are excited about the holidays, too; Laura is going to Jamaica and Francisca to China. Several parents bring presents for the staff; they hug and kiss and promise to visit in the future. Francisca takes a last photo of each child, most of them holding up the red and gold good attendance certificates she made.
Laura is crying again, her tears dripping on the floor. When Nicki comes, she leaves her box of chocolates for the staff quietly by the pegs; caught up with cameras, tears and other parents, the staff do not notice her. JoJo slips out and is gone.
(c) 2005 Wendy Wallace. Some names and details have been changed. Oranges Lemons: life in an inner-city primary school by Wendy Wallace is published by Routledge, pound;12.99. TES readers can get their copy at the special price of pound;9.99 until September 22. To order go to the TES bookshop at www.tes.co.ukbookshop or call 0870 4448633 quoting TESFRI