Together in halls of plenty
Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes is a large school that, through good organisation, manages not to feel like one. Of its 2,600 pupils, aged 12 to 18, 400 are on the special needs register and 100, including two boys with Down syndrome, have statements.
The school occupies a large site, sharing public amenities including a leisure centre. It is divided into four halls, each a kind of mini-school, with its own teachers and classrooms. But the school's commitment to inclusion ensures everyone feels they are an important member of this community.
Headteacher Mark Wasserberg says: "We start from the ethos that all people on campus are of equal value, and therefore we want to include all young people with their peers so far as we can.
"The other part of our ethos is a determined optimism: a belief that all young people can succeed. We are learning that, with the right attitude and support, it is remarkable how many young people with special needs can be accommodated in the mainstream."
The school is keen to work with parents who choose mainstream education for their children with special needs, but it does recognise limits.
"I've known young people with special needs for whom mainstream is not right: for them it was demotivating and did not build their self-esteem," says Wasserberg. "Inclusion is not a panacea and you need to be pragmatic.
We should be more humble and listen to children, parents and carers."
Milton Keynes has a range of special schools, so the proportion of pupils with special needs at Stantonbury is not particularly high, in spite of the large numbers.
CENTRE FOR DEAF CHILDREN
Since the 1980s, the school has been designated to provide for deaf and hearing-impaired children. It has five students receiving signing support in the classroom, as well as some specialist help outside. The school also has a resource for 12 children with language and communication needs.
But the emphasis is on mixed ability teaching. Pupils are taught in their tutor groups, and special needs support is delivered in the classroom where possible.
"Every teacher would expect to have a child with special needs in their group and to take responsibility for them," says Alison Matthews, assistant head (special needs). "That's an important part of our ethos."
Since 2000, the budget for high incidence special educational needs - for children with moderate learning difficulties, specific learning difficulties and low-level emotional and behavioural problems - has been delegated to the school. This gives Matthews flexibility in spreading support across the school - each class receives six-and-a-half hours teaching assistant support per week - but can also create tensions if there are children she believes need a bit extra.
Support comes from a whole-school special educational needs faculty, comprising 10 teachers and 40 teaching assistants. They are divided among the halls, so each has its own special needs team. Teaching assistants have a career structure devised by the school, and some specialise as social inclusion assistants. Each special needs team has its own base, with office, resource and teaching rooms.
All special needs teachers also do some mainstream teaching. "This helps them to be realistic in their expectations when they liaise with mainstream teachers," says Alison Matthews.
Special needs staff at Stantonbury often support students in mainstream lessons not by sitting with them, but by setting up a task, stepping back and encouraging them to have a go. This also gives the student more of a chance to interact with their peers.
In a Year 11 science lesson on electric circuits, for example, Scott Wiginton, who has Down syndrome, is trying to find out what happens to lightbulbs when you increase the power. Another boy soon leans over the desk to help.
"I think it's important that Scott is doing the same sort of thing as the rest of the class," says teaching assistant Val Dixon. "Some of them will help him and ask him what he's doing, so he gets some contact."
In the art room, a group of GNVQ students are beginning a project on self-portraiture, developing designs based on significant personal items, such as mobile phones. Working among them - and drawing a mobile phone that belongs to the teaching assistant - is Matthew Boyd-Gravell, a 16-year-old with Down syndrome.
Matthew works with purpose and evident enjoyment, and he pleases all around him when he decides to trace the letters "ME" onto his page. Beside him on the desk lies his last project: an accomplished sheet of drawings based on Aboriginal art, produced with the help of teaching assistant, Cal Keir.
"He did art with me last year, and was very enthusiastic," says Keir. "He loves having a pencil in his hand. He creates the ideas, and I pull it together for him, so he has the sense of achievement of a finished piece."
Matthew - and his twin brother, who is not disabled - started at Stantonbury four years ago. Matthew now devotes much of his time to art and ceramics, as well as attending gym sessions, and learning signing one day a week at a local special school.
His parents are delighted with Stantonbury. They live outside the catchment area and had to fight to get Matthew a place. Stantonbury had no experience of students with severe learning difficulties, and it was uncertain about how it would manage.
"We knew Stantonbury had a good special needs department, and we thought it was probably the only secondary school in the area adventurous enough to take Matthew," says his mother, Chris Gravell, an education advice worker and parent advocate. "Once he got a place, the school just buckled down and did it - it's been great.
"Matthew seems really happy. There's been none of the bullying you might expect in such an enormous school. And we believe this is developing Stantonbury's capacity to welcome others like him."
Nicola Hodgson, Matthew's art teacher, is perhaps not untypical of mainstream secondary teachers when she admits she never expected to teach students like him. But with strong back-up she can include him in her lessons without giving him more attention than any other student.
"It's been a pleasure to have Matthew," she says. "And the other students have a large amount of respect for him."
The benefits for the mainstream students of inclusion are "huge", argues special needs faculty co-ordinator Elaine Ginns. They recognise that boys like Matthew and Scott "are capable of doing good work", whatever their differences. "And they recognise that they are part of our community," she says.