Spiritual awakening

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Elaine Williams visits a special school that has faced up to the challenge of teaching spirituality to children with disabilities and created an online resource for assemblies

There is a hushed, intent atmosphere as pupils at Highfurlong school in Blackpool gather for their special assembly. Ashley Wright, 15, is presiding, orchestrating the interactive whiteboard technology, which is communicating the theme of the morning: family and friends. She is clearly enjoying the responsibility and her sparkly smile reflects the mood of the children around her.

Highfurlong is a 3-19 special local authority day school which caters largely for pupils with cerebral palsy, many of them wheelchair-bound with multiple, profound and complex needs. Ashley is a high-achiever - with a reading-age of 14 she is the best reader in the school - and although her unaided communication is severely limited by her cerebral palsy, she relishes the chance to demonstrate her understanding and ability to use rollerball technology, which operates as a mouse, to present the questions of the day: "What makes us happy?" and "What are our families like?"

Ashley is surrounded by Highfurlong's infants who are presenting the theme of family and friends by telling the story of a family of owls and how the mother cares for her young. The idea is based on literacy work they have done using Martin Waddell's book Owl Babies and a visit to a bird of prey sanctuary near Leyland. While they are talking, using voice-operated communication aids like Big Mac and Techspeak, which enable them to press buttons or symbols to activate pre-recorded sentences, baskets of bird feathers and rustling leaves are being passed around the assembly, so that pupils can also access meaning through touch.

There are 52 pupils at Highfurlong and at least 20 of those who have gathered for this assembly are wheelchair users, many with limited speech, hearing and visual impairment. One of the infant presenters, seven-year-old Conor Cartmell, is blind and has restricted physical mobility. He is helped by his support teacher to operate his pre-recorded speech button, but has learned to make wonderful owl-like noises. Liam Davidson, five, is a whiz on Techspeak and is totally animated by the task of telling the owl's story with his keyboard of symbols.

Eddy Jackson, Highfurlong's headteacher, says Liam has a very high level of comprehension. The job of his school is to unlock Liam's potential and that of every pupil. Technology, which has been adapted by highly skilled staff to meet pupils' needs, plays a major role. "These children are locked inside their bodies," says Eddy Jackson. "Whatever is in there, it is our responsibility to develop it to the full."

Religious education presents this type of school with particular challenges. Abstract concepts, such as "God" and "prophet", have little meaning for children with such complex needs. An Ofsted observation that spirituality needed to be developed further in a school that inspectors otherwise praised highly and judged to offer the best technology-aided communication in the country, prompted Eddy Jackson to take up the challenge. He went on to gain a special needs millennium award from the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies in Oxford, which released him one day a week for a year by covering his costs and providing him with supervisory support, enabling him to develop the DARE project.

DARE (Digital Assembly Resources for Educators) is a free online education site, which addresses philosophically challenging issues, questions about what makes life worth living and what makes a good life. It is designed to be used by sensory impaired pupils using interactive whiteboards and large projector screens as a visual stimulus to present key topics and themes in school assemblies, such as "me", "food", "light", "friends", "feelings", "kindness" and "celebration". What takes place in assembly is then easily transposed through IT to classroom work across the curriculum.

The special characteristic of this site and its supporting and extensive teacher and eLearning resources and guidelines, is that the themes start with significant objects from the children's own environment to help them refer to things, people, places and events in their lives. DARE makes systematic use of these "objects of reference" to lead them towards an understanding of their symbolic function in life and systems of belief.

For example, an assembly on the theme of food led children towards understanding its symbolic significance through a variety of sensory ways, such as: projecting visual symbols through the interactive whiteboard and clip art; using technology to activate food mixers as a way of giving children the opportunity to feel textures and taste spices, and then to carry on those themes across the curriculum and in circle time.

"This is intended to bring out children's cognitive development and help them progress their own understanding," says Eddy Jackson.

Reverend Dr Ralph Waller, director of the Farmington Institute, says: "This is an impressive project with a wide application. Collective worship can be difficult to make meaningful for children with profound disabilities, but this is a very dynamic project."

Eddy Jackson says one of DARE's strengths is that it can be used on many levels and adapted for mainstream as well as special schools. He says: "I wanted to create a collective worship and RE resource that would address key themes and have everything there in one place for very busy teachers."

Angela Crawford, Highfurlong's deputy head, says: "Our job is to open up choices for these children, to help them understand that they have a right to say what they want and how they feel. We also have to make things enjoyable and fun and we have to make things real. DARE is a very good tool in this respect."

DARE can be found on the North West Learning Grid at www.nwlg.orgFarmington Institute:www.farmington.ac.uk

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