Trophies for special schools

13th July 2007 at 01:00
One went from 'horrendous' to entrepreneurial; the other fund-raised for foreign climes

Ambition and Enterprise

burnhouse school in Whitburn, West Lothian, was the only Scottish education awards entrant to win two trophies.

The first was for "ambition" a fitting accolade for the only special school on the Scottish Executive's Schools of Ambition programme; the second, for being the "most enterprising special school".

The awards mark an impressive turnaround for the school, which caters for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. In late 2004, it received "a horrendous report", in the words of Gordon Ford, West Lothian's director of education and cultural services.

HMIE inspectors had identified important weaknesses across the school, from learning and teaching to assessment of pupils' needs. They found there was no appropriate culture for learning, the curriculum was too narrow, expectations were too low, pupils' needs were not identified, accommodation was unsuitable, resources too limited, and leadership was weak. Pupils were not attending classes and teachers were not teaching them when they did.

Then, in January 2005, Margaret Gibson was appointed headteacher, acting as the catalyst for a change in direction.

Now the education unit teaches the pupils instead of just containing them; and the additional pound;300,000, received over three years by every School of Ambition, has allowed her to invest in more staff and specialist training.

Pupil attainment has risen significantly (one pupil sat four Highers this year) and new vocational opportunities are on offer. One hallmark of Mrs Gibson's headship has been an emphasis on English, maths and basic skills.

The school won its enterprise award for activities that include organising St Andrew's Day celebrations, a Children in Need charity event and a profit making cafe. Outside employers are invited to school job fairs; and within the school, pupils can apply to run a healthy tuck shop or become the recycling manager. Through the council, pupils are offered work experience in different building trades, giving them practical skills and confidence.

Mr Ford says Mrs Gibson has brought about a culture change in terms of referrals from other secondaries. "Burnhouse is not seen as a school for bad girls and boys any more, but a place where they could achieve something and where they have a future," he says.

He congratulates all the staff at Burnhouse, some of whom were there in less happy days but have been remotivated and given the chance to show their ability and commitment.

Of Mrs Gibson, he says: "For some reason, she has an empathy with a lot of these youngsters and their backgrounds. It is hard to put your finger on it, but from the day they come into the school, she gets to know them in a way that, with the best will in the world, guidance teachers in secondary schools have never been able to do because they don't have the time."

Active Citizenship

The 36 pupils at Corseford School in Renfrewshire all have complex physical disabilities and learning difficulties. But this has not stopped them gaining the active citizenship prize in Scotland's education awards.

Many of Corseford's pupils have cerebral palsy; all have high-level needs, catered for by staff at the Capability Scotland-run residential school, which makes it even more remarkable that they have given so much of themselves to help others in need, both close to home in Paisley and across the world in places such as India and Ethiopia.

Marbeth Boyle, headteacher of Corseford, says: "Our pupils need a lot of support in learning and living. We start from the very earliest days, giving people responsibility and engaging them as active citizens. We would expect even the most passive child, who can't speak or use his hands, to start choosing and living with the consequences."

Every class in the school has enterprise and citizenship embedded in the curriculum.

"We try to cultivate a 'can do' attitude," says Mrs Boyle.

By twinning with a school in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Corseford's pupils have had their eyes opened to the African children's hunger, both for food and education. "It makes them very aware of the good things they have," says Mrs Boyle.

The Bangalore project, for instance, has shown the Corseford youngsters that "for an embarrassingly small amount of money, they can buy a lot of wheelchairs" for disabled children in India. It makes them realise how fortunate they are, having their wheelchairs and equipment provided for them.

Mrs Boyle explains that while the pupils may not be able to cook for themselves, or even come up with their own recipes, they can offer their mum's recipe for inclusion in a fund-raising cookery book.

"We are saying: 'Yes, you have difficulties, but you can still do things. You can still be part of the scene.' They can still contribute to the debates. They have opinions and are helped to formulate a view. They feel they can make a difference to other people's lives by fund-raising.

"They have had a lot of discussion with the Children's Commissioner about the things they want, and were able to talk about things they thought were not right for them."

Corseford pupils' achievements

Raising money for new wheelchairs for pupils in India

Sponsoring the education of Mginci, a young Zimbabwean boy

Joint fund-raising to equip a new school in Lalibela in Ethiopia

Producing an Advent calendar, which raised money for the Rough Sleepers Initiative in Paisley

Contributing to national consultative initiatives eg Citizenship in Practice; Having your Say at School; United Nations Special Session on Children; and Listen, A Million Voices in Scotland.

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