In touch with their surroundings

7th September 2007 at 01:00

A state-of-the-art school is proving a huge success with its pupils, who are blind and deaf and have learning and mobility problems. Emma Seith reports

"WHAT CAN YOU do here that you couldn't do at your old school?" asks Mickie Milne, a teacher.

"Outside," says Martin Simpson, 16.

The classes at new Hazelwood School in Glasgow for blind and deaf children some with severe learning difficulties and mobility problems have direct access to their own private patch of the outside world.

Ms Milne has started adorning the senior boys' section with plant pots and has big plans for the area: "We're going to have a senior boys' oasis," she says. But, for Martin, the highlight of having access to the great outdoors has been the swing bench. "He was totally gobsmacked by it."

For Andrew, who is 17 and confined to a wheelchair, the swing bench is no competition for his weekly massage. He has just returned, essential oils wafting in his wake, and clearly feels that if aromatherapy is available on site, anything is possible. He asks for a biscuit. "Where do you think you are?" jokes Ms Milne. "At your granny's?"

But Andrew's granny would have to be in possession of a spectacular home for any confusion to arise. Hazelwood School was created from a merger between Kelvin School (which specialised in multiple disabilities and visual impairment) and Carnbooth (which specialised in dual sensory impairment). It has taken four years to design and build, has cost Glasgow City Council Pounds 7 million and is being hailed as the most advanced school of its kind in Europe. It has a hydrotherapy pool, a gym with floor-level trampoline and soft play equipment, and a house in the grounds where senior pupils will learn to become independent.

Gordon Matheson, the council's executive member for education services, says: "For most youngsters, the most appropriate provision will be their local mainstream school, but there are some with more complex needs for whom specialist provision is the best option. In Glasgow it's not either-or, but what's best for the child."

Children as young as two start at Hazel-wood and stay until they are 19. Some, when they arrive, cannot walk, feed themselves or go to the toilet alone. The school's aim, therefore, is not academic excellence, but to equip students with life skills.

Monica McGeever, the headteacher, says: "When our children leave this school, they will not go into jobs or go and live in their own flat or house they will always need to be supported. Adults who are blind and have learning difficulties can lead passive lives. But the more independence they have, the more choices they will be able to make, and the more stimulating their lives will be."

Jane Eyre, depute head, adds: "One young man the most cognitively challenged person I've ever met can now go and eat and go to the toilet by himself. For the rest of his life, his dignity and privacy will be maintained."

Hazelwood, situated on the edge of Bella-houston Park, is S-shaped, snaking its way around the beech and lime trees that were already established on the site. The school is built from sustainable materials to make it fit in with its surroundings Siberian larch (Scottish was too expensive), zinc on the roof and slate on some of the walls. Alan Dunlop, of Glasgow architects Murray Dunlop, who designed the school, says: "The wood is quite yellow, but eventually it will grey and it will become difficult to distinguish where the school stops and the landscape starts."

"The slate has been a hit with the children," says Miss McGeever. "They love the texture and that it heats up on a sunny day."

The biggest challenge, however, was not making the school fit into its surroundings but fit with the needs of the 48 children it serves. "We had to develop a brief for a building that had never been done before," said Mr Dunlop, whose firm also designed the award-winning Radisson Hotel in Glasgow.

Consultation with parents and staff was extensive. There were regular presentations as the design evolved, with the architects spending a couple of hours wearing sight inhibitors in order to get a taste of what it is like to be visually impaired.

Their work has paid off. A cafe sits at the centre of the school forming a social hub, and a single corridor follows the contours of the building. Classrooms come off this thoroughfare in a logical order, starting with the nursery classes and ending with the senior school. This helps the children to map the area mentally, says Ms Eyre. A trailing wall that runs the length of the corridor also helps the youngsters orientate themselves, allowing them to feel their way to class, or to the music room, cookery room or art room. Eventually signifiers, like a paintbrush to indicate the art room, and Braille will be added to highlight when different rooms have been reached.

The classes face north so that natural light is evenly spread. "Some of the kids can pick up on strong shadow and that can cause visual confusion," explains Mr Dunlop.

Sandwiched between classrooms are "focus rooms" where parents or psychologists can observe the children in class without them being aware of their presence. Classroom windows are large but set high in the wall, below the roof, so that passing vehicles and people in the surrounding homes cannot look in.

It was a challenge, however, given that the school is located near a busy junction (the site is bounded by Mosspark Boulevard, Dumbreck Road, Torridon Avenue and Dumbreck Court) as was keeping out the noise. The school, which has a capacity of 60, fulfils a national function, with one pupil travelling daily from as far as Lockerbie.

Already, Ms Milne and the senior boys have made use of the volume of traffic on the doorstep. She says: "At nine in the morning and four in the evening, they're starting to learn that these are the busy times. Here, they are in touch with the real world. At an isolated school in the middle of nowhere, they wouldn't learn about that."

Every classroom has a door that leads into the garden from which they can reach their own private area and the outdoor play equipment, which includes swings and a roundabout that can be accessed by wheelchair, and an outdoor music area.

However, the jewel in the crown for many of the pupils is the hydrotherapy pool. "It's more than just a nice pool," says Miss McGeever. "This is often where youngsters are most relaxed and we get some of our best communication. It is used by the speech and language teacher as well as the physio."

The pool changing rooms are unisex and modelled on those found in a public leisure centre. "We want the skills we teach them to be transferable in the community and in public buildings," she says.

Similarly, the school cafeteria is as close to a cafe as possible, so the youngsters get a feel for eating out and queuing and ordering. "Some of our oungsters find queuing difficult," says Miss McGeever. "They aren't used to waiting and don't have the patience. Some don't understand turn-taking, waiting for someone else to be served before you move up the queue. They will encounter these things in the outside world. It's our job to prepare them."

Even a trip to the toilets is an education: each sink has a different type of tap, and some of the toilets flush with the push of a button, others with a tug on a handle.

The ultimate challenge for pupils, however, will be a stay in the school's house. This standalone building will be used in their final year, as a place they can stay for one or two nights a week to experience living in a different environment from their own homes. The house has three twin bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen with adjoining living room.

"Where's the plasma screen TV?" says Jim Buchanan in mock indignation. His son James attends Hazelwood. "I'm just joking it's fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. James loves it. He's autistic and doesn't speak but you can tell by the smile on his face."

Gary Simpson, whose twin boys Martin and Gerard attend the school, is equally delighted. "Over the years in development, parents and pupils have been kept up-to-date with what has been happening," he says. "Parents were initially protective, especially over Carnbooth which was in the middle of the countryside, but bringing both schools together has benefited everyone. And the fact that it's set in mature parkland is fantastic it looks like it has been here for ever."

And what about the staff? "You would be pushed to moan about this," says Ms Milne, who taught at Kelvin School for more than a decade. "You'd have to pay me a lot of money to get me to complain about coming here to work every day."

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