Young achievers

9th September 2005 at 01:00
When Thomas Austin, who has Down syndrome, arrived in the reception class at Eccleston Mere primary school seven years ago, staff were taken aback by how unsettled he could be, according to head Philip Friend. "He might run out of the classroom; his behaviour was quite difficult," he says.

That seems hard to believe this year as Thomas (centre, below) received a Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Award for his outstanding contribution to his school and local community. He has represented Britain in disabled gymnastics, and raised pound;1,000 on a sponsored cycle ride. But his biggest achievement, says Friend, is his presence within the school.

"He's very popular; he has really good friends; he's thoughtful and kind to the younger children: he stops and asks them how they are doing. He's remarkably pleasant and well-mannered. He often guides visitors around school: the other day I had a meeting of eight heads here; he welcomed them and showed them to my room."

The 350-pupil school had wide experience of children with special needs before Thomas came, says Friend. But he stretched them, ultimately to the benefit of everyone there.

"I think he understands that he's a special boy, that he has a special place in the school. Precisely because at the beginning he tested the way we thought and our resolve, now he has made us think differently, more inclusively. Now I know we want to be an accepting school that welcomes whoever comes through the door. Some pupils leave a mark on you; Thomas is one of them."

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