Where curiosity leads the way

26th June 2009 at 01:00
A special school in Perth has received a glowing inspection report, following its move from `splendid isolation' to a new multi-million pound building on a campus shared with a mainstream primary and secondary

Lesley Wallace is a depute head at Fairview School, formed when a special needs primary and secondary - Cherrybank and Glebe - joined forces over a year ago.

Ms Wallace grew up in Scone, where Glebe was located, but admits that for 18 years she was oblivious to its existence. It was "in the middle of nowhere", as fellow depute Moira Marshall puts it. It was a lovely setting, but pupils and teachers worked in "splendid isolation", says headteacher Coral Bell.

Now, in its incarnation as Fairview, an all-through school for two to 18 year olds with severe and complex needs, staff and pupils find themselves not only in a city - Perth - but on a campus sandwiched between a mainstream primary and secondary. To the south, their playgrounds separated by just a fence, is Viewlands Primary, and across a car park to the north, Perth Academy. Their close proximity has led to collaborations that previously would have required considerable planning - not to mention a minibus.

The Pounds 6.5 million building, which opened its doors in March last year, has a pool, a soft play area, therapy and sensory rooms, a library, hoists in every classroom, specially-designed outdoor play equipment and a spacious conservatory. It has "revitalised" staff and pupils, says Ms Wallace.

Ms Bell agrees: "I was in the conservatory with a drama class. We were pretending to be on a boat, using sheets for sails, and when I looked up, there were clouds scudding across the sky. It was fantastic."

The conservatory, which was originally included in the design so children in wheelchairs could have the feeling of being outdoors even when it was too cold, has hosted concerts and today it is being transformed into an art gallery so parents can view their children's work.

Art teacher Yvonne Spearing, in the process of hanging pictures, worked in mainstream secondaries until four years ago when she arrived at Glebe. "We do tie-dye, printing, batik - everything I can think of to keep the children interested and develop their observation skills and curiosity," she says. "They manage it all perfectly well and attack it with gusto. They are always so pleased with their efforts. You never hear: `I can't do it'."

At Perth Academy and Viewlands, exhibitions of pupils' art are also to be held and parents will be free to move among the three schools. "Creative people, like the staff we have here, do amazing things with a shoe box," says Ms Bell, "and they have a lot more freedom now in terms of the opportunities this building gives the children. You can't underestimate that."

When inspectors visited Fairview for the first time in February, they found "a highly motivated and enthusiastic staff" who had "successfully become one team". They described the learning environment as "exceptional" and learners' experiences as "excellent".

Everybody is focused on one goal. "Our vision is to give our children a first-class education and make them as independent as we possibly can," says Ms Bell.

But enjoyment is also central. "Fun is a big element for us," she continues. "We have embraced A Curriculum for Excellence. The principles are very much us, but we have added one: curiosity. Without that, there is no learning and, for a lot of our youngsters, we need to create that curiosity for them."

Fairview pupils make regular trips into the community, work on the school newspaper, run a healthy-eating tuck shop on a Thursday and a cafe called T42 on a Wednesday, which sells goods they bake the day before.

Ms Bell joined the Glebe team as acting head in 2002, following a poor HMIE report. In May 2007, she also became head of Cherrybank, when the primary's headteacher retired and it had been decided to merge the two schools.

"Lesley, Moira and I worked across the two schools," she says. "They were acting heads for part of the week and I worked two days at Glebe, two days at Cherrybank and one day on Fairview."

In previous roles in the education authority, Ms Bell knew and worked with the headteachers of Viewlands and Perth Academy, Gillian Thomson and Chic Kiddie. They say their schools had a tradition of inclusion, but the proximity of Fairview has helped them take it further. "It's a great deal easier than when the same kids were in a school in Scone miles away," says Mr Kiddie. "Now you can just walk across the playground."

There has been "a real will to work together", since a Fairview user group was formed in 2004, says Ms Bell. But no one has forced the issue; things are evolving.

"We each have our own responsibilities to the population of children in our schools, but there is this wonderful added dimension of being able to work together across the three establishments."

The projects and co-operation that have developed add up to a significant whole, even if individually none is "world shattering", says Mr Kiddie: "The way you shatter myths and misunderstanding is to live the experience. We really have not had any difficulties in terms of the campus itself, young people getting on with each other or any negativity you might have expected to get."

Certainly, HMIE praised the way the three schools work together and highlighted it as an example of good practice. Perth Academy's swing band played at the opening and pupils from the academy work as peer tutors. Nine have taken part in the scheme over the past year and 20 are interested in doing so next year.

Kieran Smith, S6, has enjoyed his time at Fairview as a peer tutor. "It's been brilliant to give something back to the school community and also to help me develop my communication skills," says Kieran, who begins studying medicine after the summer. "The quality of the school and the atmosphere exceeded my expectations. It's such a nice place."

Spending two periods a week at Fairview, he has got to know the pupils well, he says: "I walked in the room one day and one of the boys said, `Kieran you're my best friend'." He even played Santa for the school at Christmas time.

Pupils from Viewlands Primary are also regular visitors. They offer support to Fairview pupils on a Friday and use the school's life skills facilities to practise their baking.

P5 pupil Molly MacLennan, says: "You learn that people are just like you, no matter what their disability."

Traffic flows in all directions. Perth Academy has provision for autistic youngsters but also uses Fairview to "expand their social experience" or if they need time out.

Youngsters from Fairview, meanwhile, have had access to the science labs at the academy and did a construction course there last year. It is hoped two more Fairview pupils will do the same next year.

Access to the academy facilities is one of the favourite things that Ronald, a senior pupil at Fairview, highlights about the new school - and the swimming pool, which all the senior boys talk about enthusiastically. The merger of Cherrybank and Glebe has also provided seniors with the chance to do peer support and mentoring in the primary.

The way in which Fairview develops independent living skills was also highlighted by HMIE as good practice. Beginning in S1, all secondary pupils get the chance to spend one night a week in the residence for half the year, either January to May or August to December.

Each pupil has targets agreed with them and their parents, which can relate to a range of topics including life skills, behaviour management and personal hygiene.

"It might be to get them to put on a seat belt or to get a child of 12 or 13 out of pads," explains Danya Millar, who runs the facility. "We've been quite successful at that, because the staff are fresh and it's their job. It's a different ball game for a parent trying it on their own."

Ms Millar began working at the Glebe School residence, Woodlea, 30 years ago. "When I first started, this job was about doing things for children - making sure they were fed and clean - but now it's about supporting children to do things for themselves, to be as independent as they can be and to realise their potential. Every child can move forward with support. I think that's the ethos at this school."

All the work Ms Millar and her team do with the pupils during their weekly overnight stays culminates in a four-night stay at the residence in S5, when the staff have to "sit on their hands", as Ms Bell puts it. The food for dinner may still be frozen, the dishes may lie unwashed, but as far as possible the youngsters are left to get on with it. In June, there is the chance for a two-night residence that is all about fun. "We go swimming, to parks - you name it, we do it," says Ms Millar.

The inspectors reported: "The benefits this scheme brings include confidence, self-esteem, transference of skills, enhanced social skills, and a taste of independence."

By October, a new residence will have been built five minutes from the school. Respite during weekends and holidays will be provided by the same staff. "I'm pleased the two services are being amalgamated so parents and children have that continuity," says Ms Millar.

If this amalgamation proves as successful as that of Cherrybank and Glebe, Ms Millar is right to be pleased.

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