Mike Hatch's first week as head of Crosshill Special School in Blackburn is one he tends not to dwell on. Eleven children absconded and when he was asked to break up a fight in the playground pupils turned on him, one armed with a bottle. That was 12 years ago - a time when Crosshill was isolated, locked in, cut off from much that was taking place in the outside world. These days the story is very different.
The intake is much the same - a mixture of children with moderate learning difficulties, emotional and behavioural problems or physical impairment - but under Mike Hatch's leadership Crosshill has become a school in the vanguard of breaking down barriers between special and mainstream provision. Every day there is a constant flow of children leaving Crosshill to attend regular high schools for specific subjects, while mainstream pupils come in daily to access Crosshill's resources and its staff support and expertise.
Crosshill was the first special school in the country to become a technology college, a status it shares with nearby Queen's Park High School. Now known as Crosshill School Specialist Technology College, it has recently bid successfully for pound;1.3 million from the Department for Education and Skills for an innovative building with an extensive glass foyer, cafe and reception to extend its provision for the community. However, even before this work begins it stands out as a colourful, cared-for, well-appointed school which already reaches out beyond its statutory provision for four to 16-year-olds. It runs a Cyber Cafe four mornings a week for pupils and parents, an after-school computer club for parents every Tuesday, a PaceSetter Club for parents, pupils and siblings after school every Thursday and an Any Which Way Club for post-16s on a Saturday morning, much of this building up ICT, literacy and numeracy skills.
The school is determined to explore its commitment to inclusion from every angle and beyond school age. In 1999 Crosshill successfully bid for pound;42,500 from the DFES to run an inclusions project. This has paid for two support assistants and an inclusions co-ordinator, the post occupied by Viv Hatch, the head's wife. She has worked in special education for most of her career but is committed to redefining the role of special schools in pursuit of an inclusive agenda. "Many children come here with their self-esteem at rock bottom," she says. "Our first job is to make sure they experience success and build up that self-esteem. We have a lot of experience in this and in behaviour management, which we can share. That breaks down the 'them and us' attitude - we're not seen as the end of the line, where you go when there's nothing more that can be done. I would like to see that perception completely demolished and our children moving out, other children moving in, a two-way sharing of resources, expertise."
To that end Mrs Hatch commandeers the movement of pupils like a military operation, accompanying children into other schools, making sure they are well supported and suitably transported.
Eileen Walsh, who is running basic skills support at Queen's Park High School with Education Action Zone funding, brings her Year 8 pupils, most of them with learning difficulties but no statement, into Crosshill for three-and-a-half hours a week. They work on SuccessMaker, an ICT programme for literacy and numeracy support, and enjoy the more individualised help. Nicola, 12, feels she is beginning to make some real progress and can cope better back in mainstream. She says: "I had trouble understanding when my teachers were talking before. When they were going on I would get lost. But coming here has helped a lot."
"Staff in Queen's Park have noticed a difference with these pupils," says Eileen Walsh. "They now have a much more positive attitude. I think we need to build on this provision."
Chris and Danny, both 14, come with their support assistant into Crosshill from Darwenvale High School. The boys, who have significant learning difficulties, have poor attendance and can be disruptive. But they appreciate the Crosshill approach, the calm atmosphere and the chance to work on SuccessMaker, which few mainstream schools can afford. "It's a good school," says Danny. "It's quiet and you get help."
"It's a different approach," says Jennifer Suggitt, their support assistant, "but here they feel they can do well, achieve something." Both boys have improved their reading scores significantly, though from a very low base.
Mike Hatch says Crosshill is playing an important role for Blackburn's children in offering different resources and a different culture, a smaller-scale environment. "Mainstream staff who bring pupils here say it makes them feel valued, that somebody cares," he says. "This can be a very effective partnership. We have the staff expertise. Not many mainstream schools know what to do with adolescents of 15 or 16 functioning at below level 2. We know how to manage such pupils."
As part of its quest to pursue and extend the meaning of inclusion, Crosshill is involved in a research project with the School of Education at Manchester University. This aims to explore inclusive practices in schools and to improve "outcomes" for traditionally marginalised learners. It forms part of a network called "Understanding and Developing Inclusive Practices in Schools" which involves 24 schools in three local education authorities, including Blackburn with Darwen, working with teams of researchers in three universities. It is one of four set up as the first phase of the Economic and Social Research Council's Teaching and Learning Research programme, the largest ever education research initiative in the UK.
Andy Howe, a research associate with Manchester's School of Education, has interviewed pupils at Crosshill who go out to and come in from the mainstream. He says: "Pupils find Crosshill warmer, less anonymous. In larger high schools pupils may feel alienated and ignored and some exclude themselves from the system. Building up relationships between schools like this may well be an answer."
* For details of SuccessMaker, contact Research Machines, tel: 01235 826700 Web: www.rm.com * Crosshill school, tel: 01254 667713265782 E-mail: Crosshill@blackburn.gov.uk
* Crosshill's pupils go out into Blackburn's high schools every day: for science and food technology at Queen's Park; for performing arts at Our Lady and St John; for vocational training at Blackburn College; English and maths at Pleckgate County High School.
Acutely aware that Crosshill pupils should not be singled out as different, inclusions co-ordinator Viv Hatch keeps a bank of the different high school uniforms in her office for them to wear on their trips out. She even takes them home and washes them so her pupils are always smart and clean. Dedication way beyond the call of duty!
Pupils from the mainstream enter Crosshill's gates just as regularly, largely to access SuccessMaker, the school's costly but highly effective integrated ICT learning programme, but also for a drama club and summer school provision.
They also benefit from staff expertise and the more individualised attention and warm, cared-for atmosphere that a well-run special school such as Crosshill can give.