Special place of learning

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The Shadow Education Minister visits a residential school to see the work going on with profoundly disabled children

When I was a member of the union committee at Edinburgh University, we used to hold an annual charity afternoon for disabled children. Their highlight was wheelchair dancing, for which the union laid on its loudest and flashiest set of disco gear.

It was an afternoon I dreaded. I didn't know what to say or to do and I felt more awkward than at any time before or since. Put simply, I didn't know how to cope with disability in all its manifestations, particularly the happy ones.

Over the past few years I have learnt a lot and much of it from visits to Stanmore House on the outskirts of Lanark, which takes profoundly disabled children aged two to 18 from all over the country. The school is run by Capability Scotland.

Far from being serious or gloomy, Stanmore House is one of the happiest and most enjoyable venues for an MSP's educational visit and several of us have been there. Some of the pupils have returned the honour and visited the Scottish Parliament, sitting in the gallery during the debate on the education committee's special educational needs report and hosting a meeting for MSPs afterwards.

Rachel Hill teaches the oldest children in the school and also happens to be the wife of my son's godfather, so it was easy to arrange some time with her to shadow what she does. This was not going to be a sitting down, talking type of shadowing. I was going to have to keep on my feet, as she does for most of every day.

Mondays or Fridays are the best days for visits. On Mondays the small classes - up to seven pupils, with plenty of help from assistants - plan what each member will do during the week. On Fridays the diaries are filled up with reporting on progress made and things achieved.

When I arrive, Justin is waiting for a volunteer - a local policeman - who is to take him for the weekend to a chalet near Oban. He is almost beside himself with excitement, checking and rechecking that he is ready. Justin is able to communicate, although slowly.

Roddy (whose family I have known for years) is profoundly disabled and it takes time to understand him. Today he is silent and introverted but the pupils who are more mobile try repeatedly to show him care or move his wheelchair and support frame (his whole body needs support).

Katie is far from silent. I have met her before and she is a live wire, demanding attention all the time and has a laugh like a hungry hyena. She has a tomboy's movements, even distorted as they are by her disability. She giggles and shrieks all the time and it is Rachel who, by eye contact and firmness, calms her down.

Katie has a meeting today about her future needs. It seems possible now that money can be found from her local authority to allow her to go on to Beaumont College in Lancaster, which is one of the few full-time colleges which has the ability to continue building her educational and social experience. Few other pupils, alas, will have access to such opportunities.

Graham has gone for the bacon rolls for everyone. In any other educational establishment, sending a 17-year-old for the breakfast would not be a big deal: here it is a journey which is completed with personal pride and communal satisfaction. It augurs well for a future in which he and others will have to fend for themselves, even in supported accommodation.

The morning passes in a blur of activity. The classroom is also a meeting place, a cooking and eating location and has a sitting room with a television, where individuals can calm down or be encouraged to be quiet.

One of the class members has not left her small room across the corridor, where she sits huddled in front of a television. She will not engage Rachel, nor look at her. Slow and kind persistence may make a difference but it will take much more time than any other type of school could give.

Rachel takes me upstairs to watch Leanne on the trampoline. Accompanied by nurses and physiotherapists, she bounces again and again, gurgling with pleasure. I resist the invitation to join in, although I later regret it.

Given the level of physical or mental disability that each pupil has, it would be easy to fall into the fallacy of thinking that either they must always be miserable or always controlled by others. The hard tack to take is the one that treats them as young people becoming adults, with their own needs and aspirations, their own emotional peaks and troughs, and consequently help them to look forward to the rest of their lives. However, that is the ethos of Stanmore House, expressed by the lively and committed staff and also by the ambience of the school, from the bright corridors to the attractive bedrooms in modern, well equipped bungalows.

Stanmore House is presently funded by ring-fenced grants from local authorities. Threats to end this funding and that of the six national special schools were lifted this month until at least 2008. Whatever happens in the long term, any retrenchment of Stanmore House would be foolish even to contemplate.

Here the children are physically and mentally damaged in ways that are sometimes beyond belief. Yet there is also a huge resource of love and kindness which makes a difference to each of their lives, their futures and to the quality of life of their families.

Politicians, like teachers, often moan at the amount they have to do and the expectations that others have of them. But their lives are bread and circuses compared to the demands on the staff at places like Stanmore House and yet those who work in such places seem to get more job satisfaction and to contribute more than most others I know.

I leave wrung out emotionally and physically. But I also leave with a spring in my step and a sense of faith in humanity at a higher ebb than is usual on Friday afternoons.

Next week: John Boyd, head of behaviour support at Kirkcudbright Academy, Dumfries and Galloway

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