Special reflection

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Children with disabilities or learning difficulties are increasingly being included in mainstream schools. Carolyn O'Grady reports on the kindof support a new teacher might expect

When history teacher Richard Howard enters a class at Buttershaw Upper School in Bradford he is likely to find at least two children with statements of special educational needs, including perhaps a child with severe learning difficulties. Buttershaw has worked hard to become more inclusive. It hopes reduce both the need to refuse children places because their disabilities or learning difficulties are considered too challenging.

One of the ways the school is approaching this is through teacher development and in particular "structured release" programmes. Departments are given, say, two lesson periods a week to discuss and re-write syllabuses to meet the needs of individuals in fairly mixed ability classes, to make lessons more fun and to develop literacy and oral skills and improve self-esteem.

Apart from discussing current practice and sharing and evaluating different ways of working, teachers have observed each other in the classroom, tried out new ways of working and videoed lessons for discussion. "The most important thing was that I had time to reflect," says Richard Howard.

And reflection is needed. To cater for greater diversity Buttershaw is having to re-evaluate many aspects of its ethos, curriculum, policy and structure. Teachers have to become more flexible and creative.

A learning support team is an important ingredient in many schools working towards a more inclusive policy. In these schools teachers often work with another professional in the classroom. Saffron Walden School in Essex is a 1,600-pupil grant-maintained school for 11 to 18-year-olds with 28 pupils with statements and around 135 on the special needs register, including many with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.

Teachers are responsible for planning for children with special needs, but receive support and advice from a large learning support team (two teachers and 11 classroom assistants, two of whom are also qualified teachers) and are expected to work with them as equals in the classroom. For children who are at some stage in the statementing process or already have statements, individual education plans (IEPs) will be drawn up by teachers and the learning support team, to set out in some detail what is expected of the teacher in relation to that child.

Members of the learning support team rarely work exclusively with individual pupils. "We aim not to make children with special needs feel picked out; adults can be a wall round a child," says Jan Moore of Learning Services. The aim is to encourage independence.

Independence is also emphasised by Janet Woodman, the special educational needs co-ordinator at Ashill Community Primary School in Somerset, a 35-pupil primary school. She works part-time with Amy, who has severe learning difficulties. "We try as often as possible to make sure she is part of a group and not relying on an adult to tell her what to do."

At first, "other children wanted to smother her, and to take on too much responsibility for her. But we are teaching them to listen carefully to her and not to ask too many questions, and it is working", says Ms Woodman.

At Saffron Walden, the learning support teacher or classroom assistant will keep an eye on the children with special needs, but otherwise will work with anyone who needs some kind of input, including very often the most able. "It's quite an intuitive thing," says Jan Moore.

Language work is often very important for those with special needs. "We try very hard to see that language work is reinforced in all subjects, including, for example, subjects like technology," she says.

At Buttershaw, Richard Howard's lessons include a fair amount of differentiation. This might mean adapting materials or using particular resources which work well for a child: writing frames to help in structuring essays and cloze passages without the words at the end, so that children can discuss what word might fit.

But often teachers emphasise that most of the differentiation takes place in the teaching rather than in the materials. Richard Howard has learned a number of effective strategies for bring out the best in his class. He is particularly keen on group work and pair work which encourages pupils to teach each other and share knowledge. "The best way to learn is to teach," he insists.

Particularly effective has been the "jigsaw" approach. He splits a class into groups, each of which looks at one factor in a subject, for example the role of trade in the Industrial Revolution. "I would expect the other members of the group to help a pupil with learning difficulties," he says. Each group would discuss the subject and might have homework on it and then present their subject to the class.

Richard is also very keen on strong endings for lessons. "It's important for all pupils to reinforce what they have learned. Sometimes I get them to draw a plan of learning, using pictures or key words or I might ask them to discuss the highs and lows of a lesson. As is the case throughout the curriculum all children can participate using pictures or signs or responding verbally if they can't write."

A lot of audio-visual aids are used to retain interest and act as a trigger. So, for example, as part of a unit on slavery he incorporated a shortened version of the Roots television series, which looked at one black American's family history, devising differentiated worksheets to go with it.

He also makes imaginative use of displays. A group of children were recently sent to examine a display of First World War recruitment posters in another part of the school and asked to present their opinions on them on their return. Again group discussion was encouraged, in which children of all abilities could take part.

Never underestimate special needs children, cautions Mr Howard. As part of a unit on the Holocaust the school recently invited the Manchester survivor's group, Second Generation, to speak to the children. The half-day session included an introduction, a short film, a talk by survivor Mayer Hersh, and questions.

"We were concerned about the special needs children sitting through it, and we discussed this with those with behavioural difficulties," he said. But given a charismatic speaker who could bring to life his own experiences in all too real a way, all 300 pupils sat quietly throughout. "When the group come again we won't bother to speak to the kids with behavioural problems, we know they'll be OK," he says.


Recent statistics confirm that an increasing number of pupils with disabilities or learning difficulties are being included in mainstream schools rather than sent to special schools. Though statistics are occasionally unreliable, figures suggest that in 1996 the special school population in England declined to 1.4 per cent of all 5 to 15-year-olds - the lowest percentage ever. However, there are still wide variations between local education authorities.

The report* compiled for the Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education by the Institute of Education, University of London, indicates that, for example, children in the London borough of Wandsworth were eight times more likely to be placed in special schools than those in the outer London borough of Newham: 2.67 per cent and 0.32 per cent respectively.

The majority of pupils with statements of special education need are now being placed in mainstream schools - 58.45 per cent in England. But the situation varies considerably. Authorities such as Newham, Cornwall, Barnsley and Camden have more than 80 per cent of their children with statements in mainstream schools and others like Coventry and Dudley have less than 30 per cent.

In addition, surveys show that the number of pupils permanently excluded from schools in England has risen substantially in the past few years, mostly in secondary schools. An important part of the debate in many schools and authorities is the need to reduce exclusions by more effectively meeting the needs of potentially disaffected pupils.

The l996 Education Act places a legal duty on authorities to integrate children with learning difficulties and physical disabilities into mainstream schools, where possible.

*'A Trend Toward Inclusion. Statistics on special school placements and pupils with statements in ordinary schools. England l992-96.' By Brahm Norwich, Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, 1 Elm Lane, Redland, Bristol BS6 6UE

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