When learning is the best medicine

20th May 2011 at 01:00
Maths lessons might not be seen as the top priority when a child is injured or seriously ill in hospital. But for bedridden pupils in danger of falling behind in their study, a visit from the teacher can be just what the doctor ordered.

As Shiela Laramore steps into her staffroom on Monday morning, she is well prepared for the day ahead. She has chosen lesson plans to work through with her pupils, sought out appropriate resources, and established the learning outcomes she would like the children to achieve.

But as she glances at her timetable, she realises the names of the pupils she had expected to teach have disappeared and been replaced with entirely new ones.

What to many teachers would be difficult to contemplate is a regular occurrence to Mrs Laramore. Her classrooms are the hospital rooms, isolation cubicles and small classrooms of Yorkhill Children's Hospital in Glasgow, and her pupils often have to attend lessons from their hospital beds.

Mrs Laramore is one of 18 teachers working for the education service at Yorkhill and Stobhill hospitals, teaching children and young people aged three to 17 who have to spend more than 10 days in hospital, and therefore miss significant spells at school.

The 40-plus children benefiting from this service, provided by Glasgow's education department, suffer from genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis, serious injuries, illnesses such as cancer and mental health problems such as anorexia.

"A lot of parents don't know about us," says Anne Gillespie, assistant co- ordinator of hospital education services. "When you bring your child to hospital you don't think about school, you think about getting them better."

The unexpected arrivals and departures of children pose unique challenges for the hospital teachers, which set them apart from their colleagues at other primary and secondary schools across Scotland.

"They have to be flexible," stresses Mrs Gillespie. "Often, they will come in on Monday morning and not know who they are going to be teaching, or a pupil might take ill during your lesson."

The staff also face emotional challenges. Because they often work with individual children for long periods of time, they are deeply affected on the occasions when children take a turn for the worse.

Music teacher Julia Heneaghan says the death of a pupil can feel like a personal bereavement. "It is something that you never forget. I remember a song or a piece of music they liked, so I often think of them when I do that piece with other children."

She came to Yorkhill from a principal teacher post at a large Glasgow secondary school. After a year with the service, she took early retirement, but returned on a post funded by the Yorkhill Children's Foundation.

The school has an extensive library of online resources and lessons, stored in plastic envelopes. To ensure infection control, resources are laminated and all equipment thoroughly cleaned. When children have to spend time in isolation cubicles, protective clothing may be necessary.

"I had a pre-schooler and for about three weeks, I was not able to take anything out of the room that I had taken in, so I could not take resources because I would not have been able to take them out again," says Ms Laramore.

The majority of teachers currently working at Yorkhill are support for learning, rather than subject specialists, as they need to be able to adapt quickly to a variety of ages, stages and abilities. Staff teach all age groups from pre-school to 17 or 18 in a variety of subjects from English to maths, science and music, and often prepare older pupils for exams, which some sit while patients at Yorkhill.

Children often cannot leave their beds, so most teaching is done on a one- to-one basis. The school has three well-equipped classrooms, and those children who are able to leave their rooms appreciate the normality of the classroom surroundings.

Once a week, Julia Heneaghan walks the corridors of the hospital with her lab trolley full of instruments and equipment to teach everything from nursery rhymes for pre-school children to Standard grade and Higher exam level.

"It is very rewarding, but it's completely different," she says. "Working in a hospital environment is difficult. Often, children are very ill. You also have to consider doctors, nurses and visitors."

However, while children often might not feel like English or maths, they very rarely don't feel like doing music, she says.

Kerri Anna McGuire, 15, has just returned to her mainstream school after months in hospital. She says school was the best part of her day at Yorkhill: "I liked that I was still getting an education, although I was in hospital. I liked my algebra. In normal school, I wasn't too good at it, but now I understand it much better."

Nicola McCrory, 5, was in Yorkhill for treatment of a brain tumour until recently. She also enjoyed getting to do the school work her peers were doing at home: "The best thing about being in the hospital was the school. It was good fun," she says.

It breaks up the monotony for the children, says Stuart, 14, who is still in Yorkhill. He adds: "School is helpful when you have it when you are not at school. It stops me from being bored."

Fellow patient Thomas, 14, says he is very glad to have teachers in hospital to help him. "They push me and give me a head start for when I go back to school," he says.

As soon as it is established that children will be at Yorkhill for 10 days or longer, the education service contacts the child's school to assess their educational needs.

"The key for us is to have a good relationship with the base school," explains Maureen Henry, co-ordinator of the service. "Some are brilliant, but some just ignore you. It is quite disheartening sometimes."

If children return to the hospital, they immediately re-join the service.

Despite its unique setting and circumstances, the hospital education service's accountability is similar to other schools. Teachers receive the same in-service days as other teachers and the service has taken the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence to heart and makes use of ICT and other online resources.

Teachers also face the same amount of paperwork on a daily basis, if not more. To ensure a smooth transition, they write daily reports on the progress of each pupil, and once a week a record of achievement is sent to schools. For those children who remain at Yorkhill for 10 weeks or more, long-term learning outcomes are agreed.

Mrs Henry says: "This used to be a dumping ground for teachers. It may be perceived to be an easy number. It was in the past, but it certainly is not now."

Staff agree that although the children's medical treatment takes priority, keeping their education progressing is crucial. "When you consider how much they lose out on - some come in for three days per week for things like dialysis - what chance do they have in education?" Mrs Heneaghan asks.

Music to their ears: 10 years of support

The Yorkhill Children's Foundation was set up in 2001 and this year celebrates its 10th anniversary. Its main purpose is to support the children and families at Yorkhill hospital and it is funded entirely by the public.

It provides innovative medical equipment, supports paediatric research and training and funds improvements in children and family facilities.

It also pays for those parts of the hospital education services that go beyond Glasgow City Council's budget. This year, it has funded the post of a music teacher, who comes into the ward one day a week. It has also provided money for a smartboard for one of the classrooms, among other things.

Mhairi Wotherspoon, marketing and communications fundraising manager at the foundation, says: "Without our help, they would still offer the service; it just would not have the added extras like the smartboard and the music teacher, and they are what make it really unique."

People can contribute to the foundation in a number of ways, from donating by text message, to staging their own fundraising event.

`One normal thing she was doing in hospital'

Kerri Anna McGuire, 15, from Glasgow, has just been released from Yorkhill hospital after a three-month stay. Her mother Helen (pictured above with Kerri Anna) says the hospital education service made a huge difference to her recovery.

Kerri Anna arrived at Yorkhill after five months at the Southern General. During surgery to replace a broken shunt in her head, she suffered a massive blood clot, which gave her a stroke.

"When Kerri came round she couldn't speak and her memory loss was quite acute. She couldn't remember what age she was," her mother says.

Within days of Kerri Anna's arrival at Yorkhill, the teachers from the education service started working with her on subjects including maths, biology and English at least once a day. Despite her difficulties, she enjoyed the lessons.

"Probably the most positive thing for Kerri was that it was one normal thing she was doing while she was in hospital," says her mother.

The lessons aided her recovery significantly, she says: "The teachers sparking her memories has really helped her to learn more. After a couple of algebra lessons, Kerri was remembering all sorts of parts of maths."

The classes also prepared her for her return to mainstream schooling by making sure she did not lose ground to her peers and had the confidence to return. Teachers were in constant contact with Kerri Anna's school and information was exchanged.

Kerri Anna has now returned to her old school for a couple of hours twice a week. After the summer holidays, she is hoping to return as a full-time student entering fifth year.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today