Diana Hinds reports.
When Darlington Education Village opened in April 2006, it brought together under one roof a primary school, a secondary school and a special school.
Dame Dela Smith, its executive director, envisaged a pioneering, inclusive community where fully supported special school children would have the chance to learn alongside their mainstream peers.
But she had no idea how many mainstream pupils would turn out to need the help of staff from the special school. And few realised how this could become a model for the rest of the country.
The village was set up when Haughton Secondary School and Beaumont Hill, a special school for pupils with a full range of special educational needs, required rebuilding. The heads and the local authority decided to take the bold step of combining them, along with a primary school, on one site.
"After we opened, there was a real issue with challenging behaviour in the secondary school, which we were not expecting," says Dame Dela, former headteacher of the special school.
"So we went down the route of personalised learning to look at how we could meet the needs of these children by changing the context for them."
This meant converting the village's newly opened language labs into a special centre where 56 mainstream pupils with behavioural problems could be supported and taught in groups no larger than 10. The centre opened halfway through last term under the direction of John O'Neill, a "pupil engagement" co-ordinator who worked previously in the special school.
"I hadn't realised how many pupils in the mainstream were struggling to access the curriculum - and were disrupting classes as a result," says John. "The centre is rather like a retreat, where they can consolidate and then go forwards more efficiently."
Pupils stay at the centre for as long as they need, and so far they appear to benefit from the smaller classes, quieter atmosphere and increased attention.
"It's had a very calming effect on the rest of the school," says John. "The mainstream teachers say they can now teach more exciting lessons rather than having to play safe because of the disruptive element in the class."
The village, hailed by Tony Blair as "ground-breaking" when it first opened, is one of the first educational institutions in the country to have brought together mainstream and special schools in this way, building a 1,400-strong community in immaculate, purpose-designed buildings and pooling the expertise of mainstream and special staff.
What makes it unique, according to Dame Dela, is its integrated leadership structure, which operates across the three schools, rather than each one having its own head. The budget is shared, as is the governing body.
Overall, this gives the village a rare flexibility to support pupils in a wide variety of ways, moving them between specialist and mainstream provision as appropriate.
The result is a new model of inclusion that truly is ground-breaking, in that it offers advantages all round. Pupils with the full range of special needs, including profound physical disabilities and severe autism, receive the specialist help and facilities they need, along with frequent opportunities to mix and learn with mainstream peers. Mainstream pupils with learning or behavioural difficulties can be sup-ported by staff with special school expertise. Special school staff share their skills with the mainstream community and feel more valued and less isolated, while mainstream staff have specialist back-up when there are problems in the classroom.
Slowly but surely, the village is learning to work as one large community.
"I thought at first it would remain very much as three schools, but it hasn't," says Val Hetherington, former acting head of the special school and now director of inclusion for the village as a whole. "That is largely because we have staff whose jobs are village-wide, working across the educational spectrum."
If there is any downside to this new way of working, it might simply be the size of the village, but Dame Dela hopes to introduce pastoral groupings "to build more of a family feel".
Chris McEwan, lead member for children's services at Darlington local authority, believes the co-locational structure is a great advantage.
"Special schools have some good techniques and procedures which can be applied to the mainstream," he says.
"With co-location you get a faster transfer of these skills than if two separate schools were working in partnership.
"The village is already a much calmer place than Haughton was a few years ago. In my view, this is a model that works - and could work for other schools, too."
'IT'S GETTING BETTER EVERY DAY'
Sue Richardson, former deputy head at Haughton School, is now head of 14-19 education at Darlington Education Village.
"I joined Haughton School in 2001 and I found it quite challenging. It had a high percentage of pupils with special needs and a comparatively high percentage from deprived backgrounds.
"The teachers worked extremely hard, but the pupils had low aspirations and were difficult to motivate.
"I was excited by the idea of the village, but a bit wary about how secondary teachers would cope without their own head. There were, inevitably, some tensions at the start, with two sets of staff coming from different contexts. But the governing body federation and the shared budget meant people had to talk to each other about ethos, plans and direction of the school.
"A year on, I think it gets better every day and we're really starting to see inclusion at work. The mainstream secondary pupils are benefiting from the special school provision. The special school staff are far more experienced, with a raft of different qualifications and teaching methods, than we are. They've had to be to get accreditation for their pupils. They have a unique set of skills, and mainstream teachers have a lot to learn from them.
"There is a new respect emerging now from both sets of staff. Teachers have a much clearer understanding of the challenges of each other's roles. This is a process that will continue to grow."
MIX AND MATCH TIMETABLE
Before Darlington Education Village appointed Sue Donaldson as its "personalisation" co-ordinator last September, Charlie Graham, 14 (right), was one of a number of pupils in the mainstream school who were not getting as much support as they needed in some areas of the curriculum. Now he has a tailor-made timetable which plays to his strengths, put together in collaboration with his parents. As well as continuing maths, English and PE with his mainstream class, he studies land and environment, science and IT with special school classes, does extra English and maths and vocational courses with Sue and independent learning in the "personalisation" room.
"Before September, it was quite hard," he says. "When I wanted help, the teacher couldn't come and I wasn't learning anything. Now it's more exciting and I work better. I get on OK with the Beaumont Hill pupils - they have some of the same difficulties as me.
"My best friends are in Haughton and they think it's all right what I'm doing. I like school better now than before."