Trail blazer

25th February 2005 at 00:00
A teacher's idea for a tactile guidance system is helping pupils of all abilities find their way around their school. Martin Whittaker reports

If there were an entry in the record books for the longest stretch of school corridor, the aptly-named Milestone School would surely be a contender.

The school, on the outskirts of Gloucester, was formed six years ago by amalgamating three special schools and an early years unit all on the same site. The result is a long inter-connected series of blocks at ground level, with more than 30 classrooms, specialist subject rooms, offices, medical and therapy rooms, and soft play rooms.

"Finding your way around the maze was a challenge for the staff, let alone pupils," says teacher Angela Cooke. "There are four units of four classrooms. Many times you would come out of a room and head off the wrong way."

In particular this complex new layout posed problems for the children. The Milestone School has 270 pupils aged two to 16, with a range of special needs. There are pupils who are wheelchair users, children with visual impairment, autism or profound and multiple learning difficulties. Two years ago Angela began to look for a solution. The result is the Trailrail - a guidance system that enables all pupils to find their way around the school.

The system is a tactile wooden rail, 330 metres long, which starts in the school's reception area and runs the length of the school down the left of the corridor, and back again on the right. It has an indented line, sometimes straight, sometimes zig-zagged, wavy or castellated, for children to follow with their fingers, and arrows for direction. A raised arrow tells them where the rail stops for a doorway, and an indented one where the rail starts again.

The original idea was for a simple handrail to give children a focus and some physical support as they moved along the corridor. But when Angela began to look for something ready-made, she found nothing available, so she decided to design it herself.

She found a company willing to take the project on - Caesarcraft, in Cambridge, Gloucestershire, specialising in products for the special needs market. She spent her summer break working on the idea with the company's craftsmen.

But a huge hurdle was the pound;10,000 cost. The school couldn't afford it, so Angela started knocking on the doors of local businesses for sponsorship. Finally, one company, Lincoln Financial Group, agreed to finance the full amount.

The scheme has developed from the original concept of a rail to include "information stations" as part of a "total communication" strategy, a philosophy that involves children using different methods of communication at any one time. The stations have four windows which identify each room to pupils, no matter what their disability, using a photograph, the written word, Makaton signs and symbols.

In an open tray below there are also objects associated with the room - for example, an armband for the swimming pool, and a plastic duck for the spa pool. In the next phase, for which the school has obtained a further pound;7,000 from Zurich Financial Services, the school is installing "communication boxes" with the same objects inside all the classrooms.

Since it was installed last summer, the Trailrail has had a good response.

Comments from pupils include "it shows you where to go", "it's nice for the children in wheelchairs to reach", "my finger wiggles along" and "I like it - it's smooth."

Jane Thompson, an advanced skills teacher, says the new trail has had a big impact on the children she teaches, some of whom are severely autistic.

"It just slows them down," she says. "They have more understanding about walking, because often they tend to run from A to B. It used to be hard work holding them one-to-one and saying we are walking, we are walking. But now we can come out with three or four children, and they just stop and use the trail to put their fingers in the running rail. It gives a much clearer focus on where they're going."

Milestone's headteacher, Lyn Shea, also sees the benefits across the school. She believes it has changed the way pupils visualise the school.

"I think they are noticing things they would have just wandered past before," she says. "They will stop at one of these stations, feel the objects of reference and notice their environment more.

"It's also giving them more independence opportunities. The other thing I have noticed is that it's created a lot of language opportunities for the children. As I'm walking down the corridor, they're wandering along and having a chat about it with me."

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