When death is part of school life

5th October 2007 at 01:00
Losing a pupil might be a once-in-a-career tragedy for many teachers, but what if it's something you have to cope with regularly? Diana Hinds reports

Pupils at Treloar, a special school and college in Alton, Hampshire, know only too well what it is like to lose a friend. Only six months ago, David, a close friend of Harry Marshall, 19, and Tyran Hawthorn, 20, from Treloar College, died from the genetic condition Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Both speak of him with visible sadness:

"We planted a tree for him at college, we released some balloons, we had a little service," says Harry. "We might reminisce about him now but we have moved on, really."

What these boys don't say is that they too, both in wheelchairs, suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy and may not have many more years ahead of them. They are bright, charming and forward-looking, and both hope to go to university after their A-levels next summer.

So what is it like to teach pupils like these? For most teachers, the death of a pupil might be a once-in-a-career tragedy, but for staff at Treloar, it is a fact of life.

Treloar was founded 100 years ago by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Treloar, as the country's first hospital and school for children with tuberculosis. The hospital was taken on by the NHS in 1948, but Treloar continued as an independent provider of care and education.

It is run by the Treloar Trust, a registered charity, and meets the needs of young people with more than 40 disabilities, some rare and many complex. Fees vary according to the level of support and specialist equipment each pupil needs.

Four out of five pupils use wheelchairs and one in five will not live into old age. In the past 14 years, 14 pupils have died at Treloar School and 45 at Treloar College, 39 of them with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Everything about Treloar, however, is positive. Walking around the school (seven to 16-year-olds, 118 on roll) and college (16-plus, 174 on roll), there is a happy atmosphere. Pupils smile and chat with visitors, and outside a boy whizzes cheerfully by in a walking frame on wheels. The classrooms are calm and purposeful and the corridors decked with impressive artwork.

"Working here makes you celebrate each day," says Harry Dicks, the school's headteacher. "It's important not to wrap these children up in cotton wool. We have to treat them in an age-appropriate way and let them grow up. We celebrate life, but we also live with death: that is part of our work."

When a pupil dies, Treloar has procedures to communicate the news in a sensitive way, systems to provide support, and a host of rituals and memorials. Staff often turn to one another, or may see a counsellor on site. Some seek out Canon Edward Pruen, the Treloar chaplain.

"The staff are affected profoundly," he says. "They cry, they're gutted, they flounder, they're at a loss. It doesn't get any easier: teachers accumulate grief, and you have to keep an eye on it. But there is an atmosphere of honesty here: it's not considered unprofessional as it once was to show your feelings, or cry, in front of pupils."

Graham Trowett, Treloar director of education, says he has to be aware of what members of staff might be going through, especially if they have lost several pupils, and what their personal histories of bereavement might be.

"At Treloar, it's about the whole community grieving together," he says. "When we lose a pupil, we celebrate their life as a whole institution. All the staff and families are involved, and it's not a sombre occasion it's often very funny. Everybody contributes anecdotes and we celebrate the good times."

After a death, it is the routines and expectations of school and college life that help to keep people going, says Pat Teague, principal of Treloar College. "We encourage people to grieve, but equally the atmosphere is that people will pick themselves up again and concentrate on what's important."

In the classrooms, teachers and pupils aim high and take GCSEs and A-levels, as well as a range of vocational qualifications. In some respects, Graham thinks Treloar is "quite hard" on its pupils: "because we have the experience of working with their disabilities, we know how far we can push them."

Achievement matters to these young people borne out by this year's A-level results (a 94 per cent pass rate, and 48 per cent A or B grades). Many are drawn to the arts, and Treloar is filled with enduring examples (such as the chapel windows designed by a boy who died from Duchenne muscular dystrophy). "I get the sense that they want to leave their mark on the world," says Graham.

For their teachers, the challenge is to accommodate pupils' needs, help them achieve their goals and get the best out of them.

"It's about making individual arrangements and personalising learning, but not lowering your standards," says Graham.

"You have to take into account a pupil's disability, but not in a way that lets them off the hook. That's a difficult balance to achieve."

'It doesn't get easier. You live with it and you dread it'

Treloar College: Ian Bailey, photography and media lecturer

"I'd never worked with special needs pupils before I came to Treloar, 18 years ago. But when I got here I felt: this is me. It's the pupils, and what you get from them, that makes it so enjoyable, as well as the challenges of helping them to access the courses.

"Photography has become very popular here. I've got a group of 12 doing AS and A2 photography, and quite a lot of them have Duchenne muscular dystrophy. We usually find they are creative, and photography is something they can get satisfaction from. It gives them a goal.

"The college warned me about losing pupils but I don't think anything prepares you. The worst time was when I lost five boys in a year. I was really devastated. When it's one, you usually end up supporting the ones who are left, but in this case it was nearly the whole class. It was pretty grim.

"It doesn't get easier. You live with it, and you dread it. But it doesn't make any difference to how I teach. I always try to treat everyone as an individual with individual needs. We laugh, we joke, we take the mick and I always want them to do the best for themselves."

A different kind of classroom

Treloar School: Judith Huddart, deputy head and class teacher

"I came to Treloar 13 years ago. From the first day, I've loved it.

I probably wasn't aware when I came that we might lose children. But we had a number of boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and I quickly realised that they had a deteriorating condition.

"You have to accept that their performance might go down. I monitor literacy every year and some pupils decline rapidly. So you have to match your teaching to where they are and minimise the effects of their being faced with deterioration.

"I had a class of five and two boys died within a couple of weeks. That was hard to deal with especially because the rest of the group found it difficult to acknowledge what had happened. As colleagues, we shed a tear and give a hug as people pass, but you have to get on and keep the job going."

Stuart Wickison, a pupil at Treloar College, features in Extraordinary People: The boy who can never grow old on Channel 5 on Monday at 9pm

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