Where inclusion means exactly that

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Children with severe disabilities are learning alongside mainstream pupils at an Orkney school, with profound results

Not every child gets cards from friends when they go into hospital. For some, the stark furniture of the ward remains conspicuously unadorned with the cheery, colourful scrawl of handmade goodwill.

Valerie Bleakley believes it is common for pupils at special schools to become isolated in this way. She speaks from experience, as headteacher of Orkney's Glaitness School, which is making pioneering efforts to bring such children in from the margins. Pupils with severe disabilities learn and socialise with their mainstream peers every day, helping them to have experiences which their parents had all but ruled out.

"When we had a Christmas performance last year, I had a parent say, `My little girl's an angel - I didn't think she would ever be an angel'," says Mrs Bleakley. "When they're in hospital, they get cards from friends saying `We miss you', or `Hope you get better soon.'

"To think that normal things will happen, like getting a card if you're not well or it's your birthday - that means something to these parents."

There was scepticism on all sides when, a few years ago, plans to merge Glaitness Aurrida Special School and Glaitness Primary came to light. The schools were on the same site in Kirkwall, Orkney's capital, but their pupils had little contact with each other.

"Putting two schools together like this is a challenge, because you've got two sets of parents worried that their kids would get lost in the big school, and teachers worried that all the funding would go to additional support needs," says Mrs Bleakley.

The new school in refurbished premises opened after the summer of 2006 with many special features, including: two occupational therapists and three physiotherapists; hand-rails at two heights in all corridors; a floor that changed colour on slopes, to help the visually impaired; toilets with bedchanging area and showers; a medical room; and a hydrotherapy room.

But this is a school of 183 pupils, including nursery children, of whom only 18 have needs that would normally preclude them from mainstream education. There is a conviction, therefore, that no part of the building should be aimed at a single set of pupils. A sensory room - with soft music, mirrors, lights and sparkly balls - is a place where any pupil can come for relaxation. It doubles as a setting for science classes.

Flexibility extends to the curriculum. There are children with Down's syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and Rett syndrome, but no pre- ordained strictures about what they can and cannot do. Certain pupils, for example, may get a lot out of mainstream drama and music classes, but not PE. "We build the curriculum around the children. We make the classes fit the children's needs," says Mrs Bleakley.

When pupils require specialist classes, the school ensures they are never far from where schoolmates are working. That proximity helps pupils become used to each other's quirks, and even children who throw tantrums do not faze their peers. "Children are used to stepping around them," Mrs Bleakley says. "They see the whole mix of society in their school and learn how to cope."

Emily Stout, 12, has found the opportunity to mix with mainstream pupils a huge benefit. She used to live in Suffolk, where her complex additional needs meant she attended a school of 65 children with severe disabilities - she has Down's syndrome and is on the autistic spectrum. Her mother, Denise, recalls that there was "no one to model behaviour on" and little opportunity to make friends outside school. "She wasn't known in the village," Mrs Stout says. "Everyone was very wary and nervous of her. They weren't aware of her as a person."

Emily moved with her parents and elder sister to Orkney in 2004, where her time at Glaitness has been "100 per cent positive". Mrs Stout says it provides the "best of both worlds": Emily is in a class of three but integrated wherever possible. She plays with the other children, has lunch with them, and takes part in the same art, music and drama classes. Other children come to her "golden time"; she does not always have to go to them. "They're getting to know her and her funny little ways, and that if she doesn't want to do something, she might just sit on the floor," she says. "That's just Emily being Emily.

Mrs Stout believes the school's take on inclusion has had "huge social benefits". Lots of children will say hello to Emily when she walks through Kirkwall, and her family feels more connected to the community. "The great thing is that people know us and we are not as socially isolated as we were in Suffolk."

Emily's behaviour has improved because "she's seeing ordinary expectations of behaviour", and she is taking part in activities Mrs Stout never thought possible. On a week-long school trip to the Cairngorms, she tried canoeing, orienteering and climbing.

Mrs Stout now has far less fear about Emily's ability to move up to Kirkwall Grammar, which has been closely following the approach at Glaitness School. Emily may make the transition as early as Easter, a process that Mrs Stout thinks will be "relatively seamless".

Mark Bevan, head of education at Capability Scotland, is impressed by the Glaitness approach. He stresses that many purportedly inclusive schools have corridors that clearly divide mainstream and additional support needs pupils, and may even have separate headteachers. "The unique bit," he says, "is the level of resources they have put in, and that the children are involved in the whole of the life of the school, not just in the occasional lesson."

One aspect of the wholehearted approach to inclusion at Glaitness School has raised a few eyebrows: it includes every pupil in its attainment levels. To do so, Mrs Bleakley believes, sends out an important signal about the school's aims. "We are not paying lip service - if we're doing inclusion, we are going to do it right," she says.

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