Special Education - Time to reveal how you feel

30th January 2009 at 00:00
Pupil voice isn't just for mainstream schools. Forums at special schools can empower children in unique ways, says Meabh Ritchie

At first sight, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd come to the wrong place. It's not often you see a hair and beauty salon or a car valeting business in a school. But these services are part of the Learning Pathways programme for some of the 223 pupils at St Christopher's Special School in Wrexham, Wales, and are a result of ideas raised in the school's pupil forum.

"Some of the pupils wanted to get into mechanics but felt that it was quite a leap from what they were doing in school," says Maxine Pittaway, headteacher. "The issue was raised in the pupil forum so we spoke to a local garage and managed to set up a service at the school for pupils to develop their skills."

While the NASUWT union has issued new guidance for teachers on dealing with the increasing influence of pupil voice initiatives in mainstream schools, pupil councils and the like are not as common in special schools. At St Christopher's, there's not just a school forum, but also a council for managing the school's eco-centre and an eco-council that looks after the school's environment and sustainability.

Despite the added difficulties derived from children's physical and education needs, Maxine says that staff believe in looking for alternative ways to allow children a voice and consulted them when bringing in the 14- 19 Learning Pathways programme. "In a lot of pupil councils, they spend time talking about toilets, but we asked their opinions on what courses they want to do. It has empowered them. We now get children who go to lessons and feel like they can ask questions when they can't understand in class."

Peak School in Derbyshire set up a pupil council in September last year. Many of its 40 pupils have profound learning difficulties and a high proportion of pupils have severe autism. A number of children also rely on makaton and voice recognition equipment to communicate.

Mike Chetham has been teaching at Peak School for eight years and specialises in augmentative and alternative communication, particularly the use of symbols and signing systems. At first, he was reluctant to establish a student council: "Because so many of our pupils find it difficult to communicate, I thought it wouldn't be effective," he says. "I've always been wary of tokenism and wondered if this would be just ticking the box for Ofsted. But we've really started giving young people a voice. I was amazed that the sponsored swim - an idea initiated by the pupil council - managed to raise Pounds 1,100 for the school."

As part of Derbyshire County Council's implementation of the Every Disabled Child Matters policy, seven pupils from Peak School went to interview 11 service providers last week about what they could offer. The meeting was recorded for the rest of the school's pupils and Mike devised accessible score sheets so that the pupils could voice their opinions.

"For a lot of the young people, life is black and white. I used smiley faces with varying degrees of happiness for them to indicate their reactions, meaning that we could involve the whole school. We're differentiating for our population. The system has to be flexible, because no two children are the same."

Mike acknowledges that teachers have to lead a lot of the discussions, but believes that when the more able pupils contribute to the debate, this in turn inspires some of the other less able pupils. Another potential challenge is the fact that many young people tend to live in the present and find it difficult to grasp long-term concepts. So when it was decided that the extra money raised should go towards a school disco, the teachers needed to go out and buy disco lights and a smoke machine straight away.

"We all go that extra mile to deliver what has been decided," says Mike, "but we don't see it like that. We have created a way of training our young people to deal with these sorts of systems so that when they go into the adult world they can cope."

Get the most from pupil forums

Differentiate for pupils' varying needs.

- Use symbols and signs to allow pupils to communicate their feelings.

- When decisions are made from pupil council discussions, try to make them happen as soon as possible so they can see the results.

- Don't be afraid of leading discussions.

- Don't impose limits on achievements.

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