Special days

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Maria Corby finds special school diets hard to swallow

Considering the way we're always rushing about at school, we should have the figures of racing snakes. How come, then, every other person here is on a diet? Our staffroom treats, brought in for birthdays, now always include fresh fruit. And since the popularity of the Atkins diet, often a bowl of nuts too. Trying to organise a staff night out is becoming quite a feat; there are the Atkins dieters, who would be happy at a steakhouse, the low-fat lot, who would settle for pasta and salad, and a macrobiotic faction, who really should just be let out to graze.

Our children, too, are often on particular diets, and at break time you can hear cries of: "Sonja really needs to eat something but she's lactose, wheat and egg-free at the moment, and all we've got is a custard cream."

Food is a big deal in a special school, and break and lunchtimes are part of the taught day. As with every other aspect to teaching, it's highly individual; Sunny has had a gastrostomy and is pump fed, for example; others have to eat food of a particular consistency - mashed or pureed, maybe, to prevent their choking.

Several of our children have to have their drinks thickened, as watery drinks can "go down the wrong way". I find thickened tea particularly gruesome, but Gurjit loves it. Some of our children are "tactile defensive" and find sensations around their mouths difficult to accept. It can be hard to get them to eat at all, but we develop programmes with our speech and language therapists, dietitians and parents, and most of them begin to build up a tolerance.

I've known children eat glue, nail varnish, acorns, crayons - and school mashed potatoes. But their strange obsessions are no weirder than our own.

You only have to look in Carol's lunch box (sprouting alfalfa and organic goat's cheese). The obsession for slimming has developed into a weekly club with weigh-ins and record cards. I may follow the example of a headteacher I heard of, who got so exasperated over his staff's obsession with the scales that he secretly altered them - making them read 2lb lighter each week. I haven't heard the results, but I like to think it's a school of racing snakes who happily proclaim: "I can eat what I like and never put a pound on."

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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