Tailored to take in therapies

6th July 2001 at 01:00
Anne Karpf reports on a school where disabilities don't keep anybody out of the classroom

Free-associate "Harrow" and you almost invariably come up with "school". Once you have seen Elmgrove First School, Harrow-on-the-Hill, you want to add the word "pioneering". On first view, it seems unremarkable. The playground has the usual careering pupils and huddled hordes, though with more adults than standard. Peer closely and you see why: they are guiding or shadowing pupils in electric wheelchairs or K-walkers - Zimmer frames on wheels.

Elmgrove First is an additionally resourced mainstream school for children with physical disabilities. Fifteen of its 350 pupils have statements of special needs which are far more extensive than those usually accommodated in a mainstream school. It has developed a way of integrating severely disabled children with the able bodied in a successful strategy.

The school has 21 learning assistants (LAs), some of them with National Nursery Examination Board (NNEB) qualifications. They work very closely with the therapists - speech and language, physical, and occupational - who visit the school, enabling the pupils to have all their routine therapeutic needs met on the premises, instead of having to attend hospital appointments and consequently missing significant amounts of schooling. In Elmgrove, therapies are integrated into the curriculum.

The work happens either in the classroom itself or in the bespoke therapy room. On my visit, six-year-old Emeka is sitting with his LA Sandra Gillard in the therapy room, doing number work. She also makes sure that he is safe in the school environment, takes him to the toilet, feeds him, and helps him on and off the bus.

Like Emeka, seven-year-old Chirag has cerebral palsy. His speech is indistinct but his personality is not. He introduces Margaret Kilshaw, his LA: "This is Mrs Kilshaw. She is trouble."

Meanwhile Meet, a six-year-old with limpid eyes and extravagant lashes, is being lowered mechanically into a chair. He has no body support of his own or speech - he communicates by directing his gaze - but expresses emotions clearly. Pinned to the wall is Meet's feeding programme, reminding his main and back-up feeders to break his sandwiches into fingernail-sized pieces. It is extraordinary to see a child with such a severe degree of disability in a mainstream school. Pat Jones, a nursery nurse assigned to Meet, works with him one-to-one all day. "I try to give him all the opportunities the rest of the class has." Without that degree of support he simply could not be there.

As the visiting occupational therapist rolls five-year-old Divyan around on the floor with a softly spiked red ball to help him identify the different parts of his body, she is closely observed by NNEB Jenny Allen, who will continue Divyan's therapeutic programme on a daily basis. The occupational therapist comments: "The school helps them to be their own personality, and says 'yes, we love you and welcome you'."

Elmgrove believes this model of inclusion benefits all pupils. When difference is seen as normal, pupils gain an understanding and tolerance which no amount of rhetoric could achieve.

One child suffers from Worcester Drought Syndrome and cannot swallow. If her saliva went into her lungs, she would die. Her LA has been trained to feed her through a tube into her stomach, three times a day. To avoid her missing lessons, she is fed during class. None of her peers takes the slightest bit of notice.

There are close friendships between the pupils. When the headteacher Denise Cawthorne first arrived in the school six years ago, she noticed a girl who was dribbling. Without saying anything, the girl's eight-year-old friend picked a tissue from a box and wiped up her dribbles. "I thought 'that's what should be happening in all schools'," she says.

So why does it not always happen? Money is one reason. Denise Cawthorne points out that integrating a mainstream school is more expensive than running a special school, and she is constantly anxious about whether the level of education authority funding, renegotiated twice a year according to the needs of the new intake, will be maintained. Only the team of therapists is paid for by the health authority.

Essential to the success of the approach are the liaison and communication skills of Theresa Chapman, the special needs co-ordinator. As well as termly meetings at the school with the consultant paediatrician from the local hospital, there is a "link book" for every child through which therapists, LAs, teachers and parents communicate. There are also continual spontaneous meetings and conversations that enable everyone to respond creatively to a pupil's changing needs, and give the staff a high degree of involvement and satisfaction.

Of course wheelchair access is also essential. The regime is continued at Elmgrove Middle School, but as one of the two local secondary schools which the pupils go on to is not accessible, friendships between disabled and able-bodied pupils often break up at age 12.

Some schools protest that they do not have the space needed for children with disabilities, but though Elmgrove had to build a garage to house the extra equipment, the school is average sized and thoughtful planning is more important than space. Teachers arrange the classrooms to accommodate the wheelchairs.

The computer unit is mobile, so that instead of the children going to the computer, it comes to them. Chirag has his own PC, using a joystick to move the on-screen keyboard.

Although there are changing facilities and a bidet in one toilet, Theresa Chapman is very excited about a new loo for which she has put in a bid for funding. It has a built-in bidet and hot air facility which can be operated by the user's elbow. "We are trying to encourage pupils' independence and promote their self-esteem. If someone's rummaging up your backside, it hardly helps your self-esteem and is quite intrusive as you get older."

With its cake competitions and sponsored bounce, Elmgrove is also an ordinary primary school, yet one where emotions can run exceptionally high. The day before my visit, Emeka's good SATs results had come through. His mother burst into tears with pride, and so did the staff.

But Elmgrove is not about courage or heroism. It is simply a sensitive and intelligent way of meeting individual needs. In 20 years' time, will we look back in astonishment that it was not ever thus?

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