‘Focus on what they can do, not what they can’t’

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
A school for children with severe additional support needs is transforming lives by emphasising pupils’ potential rather than their limitations, finds Henry Hepburn

John peers through a magnifying glass as he analyses the activity of a troop of ants. Aimée, who’s studying rainforests, beams as she identifies the Brazilian flag. Justin wears a lab coat and safety goggles as he carefully pours out the contents of a beaker.

All three pupils are of secondary-school age, and can be found doing the sort of activities you’d expect in that sector. Yet none goes to a mainstream secondary: all are pupils at the remarkable Campsie View School, for pupils with a wide range of severe special needs, such as forms of autism and Down’s syndrome.

The school may not be familiar beyond its East Dunbartonshire home. Headteacher Carole Bowie does not enter Campsie View into awards – “We’re too busy” – and it has rarely featured in the media beyond the odd article in the local papers.

Highly individualised

But school and care inspections have consistently, over many years, identified Campsie View as a place of outstanding, sector-leading work – and it is capable of transforming lives.

There are 91 pupils aged 2-19, 22 full-time equivalent teachers, around 30 support-for-learning assistants and a full-time nurse and nursing assistant. This gives Campsie View the capacity to offer a highly individualised programme for each child.

The school manages to achieve this, despite the special education sector feeling the recruitment squeeze more keenly than mainstream schools, because of the sophisticated mix of skills and experience required from staff.

Good CPD can be expensive, hard to find, and tricky to fit in. For all the challenges, however, the Lenzie school has a defining philosophy that continues to fuel success.

Critically, staff search for the potential in each child rather than fixating on what they can’t do. As Bowie says, “They’re not disabled, they’re people. They can learn – they just learn differently.” And, she adds, “The children are in charge of the school.”

This is not a tokenistic nod to “child-centred learning” – it’s an absolute necessity to be directed by what each child wants and needs, however varied that might be. (If a child likes learning lying down, as one example goes, why not lie down beside him or her?) If not, says Bowie, children will “dig their heels in”. As she puts it: “It’s not about making them the same as other children – it’s about giving them the same as other children get, in a way that suits them.”

So when I visit Campsie View, I meet seven-year-old Jack, who methodically explains how he helped make a greenhouse using old plastic bottles. But while one child might learn fairly sophisticated skills quickly, another may take months to master something far simpler.

That makes teaching in the sector difficult – but, says teacher Helen McLauchlan, also hugely rewarding. She recalls a two-year-old girl at another school she worked at, who had visual, cognitive and physical difficulties and seemed unresponsive.

“But one day, 10 months in to the job, the music that signified the start of an activity came on and her head came up and she smiled. That’s the kind of thing that makes this job special,” she recalls.

Campsie View is an innovator. There are six older children who go to an extension of the school based in nearby Kirkintilloch High – a move staff believe is unparalleled in Scotland. The six teenagers love careering around a large gym – something not found in Campsie View’s tighter confines – and they also make use of the home economics, music, drama and science departments. They socialise with the high-school pupils between classes; one parent says that the mainstream pupils have become “much more accepting”.

Unwavering calm

Back at Campsie View, the school is suffused with the unwavering calm of all staff, from headteacher to janitor. Their commitment to the school is palpable – one even gave up a headship to come here.

But Peter Purves, a former primary teacher, stresses that it’s “not for everybody”. Pupils can become frustrated and aggressive, so staff carry well-thumbed little books with perhaps 20 simple, laminated pictures – pupils may not respond well to verbal instructions – addressing all manner of situations. A hand means “wait”, other symbols mean “no hitting” or suggest a visit to the calm room.

There is inherent danger if a pupil is 6ft tall and something as innocuous as a new picture on the wall could be a trigger point. Campsie View almost never uses physical restraint, however, says Bowie – only if someone is in “mortal danger”.

“The secret, I think, is not setting the child up to fail,” she explains. In other words, knowing pupils well enough that their learning programmes minimise the chances of frustration bubbling over, or at least seeing the signs before things escalate.

I meet 17-year-old Jason, who had been having some difficulties and took himself off to a quiet room. He agrees to let me join him as he gazes out a window. When his headteacher asks how he is now, he throws his head back and laughs: “Very happy.”

Bowie is a great leader, says Adrienne Wright, senior educational psychologist for East Dunbartonshire council, because she is both “compassionate and uncompromising”.

Campsie View’s headteacher of 19 years has another view on leadership: “What you need most of all is pleasure from your job – I’ve never once got up and thought, ‘Oh no, I have to go to that school’.” Bowie believes that a truly inspirational headteacher is one who realises that “their single biggest resource is the people they’ve got” – and has the humility to know that “staff have got insight that you don’t.”

Campsie View has a network of support that extends far beyond the school gates. Inspectors have noted the high regard it’s held in by the local community; Bowie talks of people dropping in unexpectedly with cheques after organising a raffle or running a race.

But wider society has a way to go. There are still times when some shoppers can be heard tutting at pupils’ behaviour when they visit a supermarket (which made it particularly heartening for staff to hear the recent tale about a Morrisons’ cashier in Basingstoke who helped a blind girl with autism to calm down during a meltdown by letting her use the till).

McLauchlan, who is soon to retire after 14 years at the school, believes that while people have become more accepting, a problem remains in helping pupils adapt to life outside Campsie View: “The big, wide adult world isn’t as giving and supportive.”

But there are still success stories. One leaver, Craig, is now a day student at Camphill Blair Drummond, a support centre in Stirling, where, says Bowie, he is “fully included” and remains confident and relaxed, like he was at school.

“He particularly likes to be out of doors and was last observed driving a tractor cutting the grass,” she says. “Importantly, he is safe and valued for who he is.”

Julie Docherty, East Dunbartonshire’s acting depute-principal educational psychologist, defines the Campsie View ethos like this: “Let’s celebrate success rather than be worn down by the boundaries we face.”

Mix in “exhausting” attention to detail and staff who have “commitment and heart”, and there is a galvanising effect capable of remarkable results.

As Docherty says: “If you put it in a jar, you would sell it to every school in the country.”


A better life

Dr Jim Hopkins has no doubts about the fate of his adoptive son, Adam, had they remained in Bulgaria, the country of his birth: “He wouldn’t be alive.”

Adam, now 16, has attended Campsie View since he was a toddler. Hopkins, who had lived and worked as an academic in Bulgaria for many years, discovered that his son had some severe problems, including microcephaly (a brain abnormality), gene deletion syndrome and being at the end of the autism spectrum.

Hopkins, who in 2007 helped BBC documentary makers expose conditions in a Bulgarian institution for disabled children, says that Adam would have lived in “pretty horrific places” for the rest of his life if left in his birth country.

His assessment of his school in Scotland is in stark contrast: “Nothing but good – if it wasn’t for Campsie View, Adam’s life would be very different, certainly not as rich and rewarding as it is.”

Hopkins adds: “They’re not trying to make every child the same. They communicate to every child as individuals and fight for what they need.”

But he stresses that progress is slow and incremental – Hollywood-style epiphanies are not typical. Not all learning sticks, teachers say, with pupils often having to go back over a skill that they had seemingly mastered months previously.

There is talk of a grieving process that parents face, where they mourn the child they expected to have. Hopkins has seen a different grieving process, afflicting parents of young people who have left Campsie View: “I’m not looking forward to the transition after school – I don’t see anything particularly positive.”

For now, he is grateful to be in a place where, even though he concedes that families can be overprotective, their concerns are always treated seriously: “Every parent’s the most important at that point.”

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