Step by tiny step

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Conductive education is no miracle cure for motor impaired children, but the pioneering Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld helps them prepare for mainstream education and some independence, reports Su Clark.

Standing quietly behind a large two-way mirror in the nursery observation room, mothers watch their children play.

Rhys is in a corner, laughing with a member of staff. In another corner, behind some shelving, Isaac has just finished making messy fruit milkshakes with two other children. He is being wiped clean.

Another child is sitting in front of a chair, holding on to the seat. He is practising strengthening his neck and upper body. He raises his head, looks up and smiles. He can't hold it for long, and within moments he is resting it on the seat of the chair again.

A little girl is being helped to negotiate her way around the classroom on a moving chair, while two little boys totter from one activity to another, joining in where they like. They are the only two that can walk unaided.

This is free play in the nursery at the Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld, home to the only conductive education centre for children with motor impairments in Scotland. This month the North Lanarkshire school will take centre stage at the conductive education conference held in Birmingham during CE awareness week (March 11-17).

One of the adults starts singing and all the children join in. The idea is to touch a specific body part at the end of each verse. It proves difficult for the children but most manage to point their finger. It makes them laugh to join in.

The mothers are watching it all; they are also smiling.

"There is no way we would be able to be so close to our children if they were at a special school. We wouldn't be able to watch or join in. But here we are actively encouraged to be around and to take part. It is one of the things that makes Craighalbert so good for our children," says Michaela Burton, who is observing her son, four-year-old Rhys. He has cerebral palsy, following a near death experience in his pram when he was seven weeks old.

Another mother, Joanne Benton, is in the classroom with her son, five-year-old Kyle. She was called in after Kyle got upset during the morning session. She came immediately.

"You are actively encouraged to be part of the learning process, which is wonderful," says Mrs Benton. "It helps you learn how to deal with your child at home, both physically and intellectually."

Rhys, Kyle and Isaac, and the handful of other children in the brightly lit, colourful nursery all have some form of motor impairment. They are among the 80 babies and children up to age nine who currently benefit from part-time and full-time conductive education, a learning system developed before and during the Second World War in Hungary for those with severe motor skill problems.

At the Craighalbert Centre, which attracts children from as far away as Highland, the approach is holistic and educational rather than medical.

There is a high staff to child ratio; averaging about 1.6 children to 1 conductor (the title given to the multi-skilled specialists who work within conductive education). It is higher in the baby unit, where conductors and parents work together with each child.

Every activity is designed to develop both physical and cognitive skills and the centre follows the Scottish curriculum. The conductors use sign language and the Makaton pictorial system to supplement traditional means of communication. Realistic individual targets are set each day for the children and they are encouraged to reach or even go beyond these by the ever-present conductors, two of whom come from Hungary. Praise is the main motivator.

Many of the children are at the centre part-time, attending mainstream or special schools and nurseries for the rest of the week. Placements in the Craighalbert nursery and the primary school are funded by local authorities, while the baby and parent classes are free. A full-time place costs an authority pound;12,000; the other half is met by the Scottish Executive.

"It is better for the children to begin conductive education as early as possible," says the Craighalbert Centre's director, Lillemor Jernqvist, a Swedish educational psychologist who was converted to conductive education in the 1970s.

"We can work with the parents to help develop the child physically and cognitively. Our programme is unique in that it is designed around the Scottish curriculum so that our children can fit into mainstream education if able. We found the flexibility of the Scottish curriculum works well with conductive education."

The parents in the observation room are enthusiastic supporters. Most have had to fight hard to get their children here. Mrs Burton says she struggled for six months to get funding from Glasgow City Council for Rhys. Vicki Forrester says she battled with her local authority, Angus, for nine months to get funding for two days a week for her son, Isaac. She now travels four hours on each day, paying out pound;300 a month in petrol, to bring him to the centre.

Claire Fowles has come even further.

"I was taking Ewan to a woman who provided conductive education in her house in Perth, Western Australia, where we lived. When she found out both my husband and I had British passports, she recommended we move to Britain to get Ewan into the CE centre in Birmingham," says Mrs Fowles. "I did some research and found out about Craighalbert, so we moved to North Lanarkshire. Both our families were from Scotland originally, so it was good to be near them."

The parents believe the Craighalbert Centre offers them something more than a treatment unit or a special school. With such a strong focus on mastering physical control and developing communication skills, it gives them hope.

"It has a holistic approach that includes teaching the children to dress themselves, go to the toilet, to walk or even to simply weight bear. But it is set within an educational context," says Veronica Mullen, whose daughter Niamh is preparing to leave Craighalbert later this year for a mainstream school.

"The centre can help to prepare our children for mainstream education, which is what many of us want, and possibly, in the long term, independent living."

The school was opened in 1991 with a grant from the Scottish Office and has been funded since through the assisted grant scheme, receiving pound;750,000 annually. It is a large and light building with roomy, well-resourced classrooms. With photographs and artwork on the walls, it looks like any other nursery, except for the special toilets.

A hydrotherapy pool was added in 2000, a third of which was paid through fund-raising and the rest from the National Lottery.

Three years ago it almost lost its national funding, along with the other six independent grant-aided special schools in the country. It won a reprieve until 2008. However, Dr Jernqvist is stoic about the fast-approaching date.

"The plan was to split the grant among the 32 local authorities for them to spend as needed, but that would have caused too much uncertainty for the school to carry on as it does," she explains.

"Fortunately, the Scottish Executive saw our view. Now it will not be reviewed again until at least 2008, and that is reviewed, not withdrawn."

However, some local authorities may not support this, especially the more remote ones, as most of the Craighalbert children come from the nearest authorities.

"When the centre was set up, a decision was taken to place it as centrally as possible to the largest concentration of population," explains Professor Bart McGettrick, who was principal of the former St Andrew's College of Education at the time and is a board member.

"It is unfortunate that it isn't accessible to more local authorities, but we are looking at ways of extending the service through outreach and training."

Dr Jernqvist would like to see more local authorities using the system, especially as there are residential units, but she recognises the obstacle of close parental involvement can mitigate against families from greater distances. "We tend to get people travelling further for our summer school or Saturday classes," she says.

To facilitate this and increase the school's outreach work, it opened the Ester Cotton wing in 2003. This is an outreach department with a huge classroom that can be partitioned.

The centre also has a programme to disseminate conductive education.

Courses are held regularly for anyone interested in the approach, including teachers.

"With the policy of mainstreaming, many schools may have to accommodate children with motor impairments and their staff need training," says Dr Jernqvist.

"The number of children with cerebral palsy remains the same as it did in the 1950s, with about three in 1,000 affected. The increasing survival of extremely premature babies could be responsible."

The current relationship between the schools and nurseries sharing placements and the receiving schools is working well, say the parents. They have been encouraged by the positive attitudes of head and class teachers, who have not only welcomed their children but have visited the Craighalbert Centre, attended courses there and invited conductors to their schools.

An HMI inspection in 2000 praised the links the centre had with its partner schools, noting that staff visited schools regularly and built up good relationships with teachers. It also highlighted how schools appreciated the follow-up support provided after the children left. (Criticisms concerning its curriculum had been addressed when inspectors returned in 2002 and found "very good progress".) The centre continues to support its children after they enter mainstream through its outreach programme and its summer and Saturday schools, which is reassuring for the mothers standing in the observation room. It is hard for them to imagine their children in full-time education, but all the ones present believe it is the preparation received at Craighalbert that has made even imagining it possible.

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