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When party frocks stay off

SPECIAL NEEDS. Denise Dew-Hughes has a stock answer for anyone asking why she should want to give up her free time to carry out educational research. "The children are grown up and the dog's dead."

But there is a better reason why she decided to compare the social maturity of special needs children in mainstream and special schools. "It's important to do something that really matters as far as equal opportunities are concerned, " she says.

Denise has been concerned about the rights and needs of SEN children since the 1970s. She originally taught English and history in a grammar school, but an invitation to tutor a friend's teenage son changed the course of her career.

"He had high-tone deafness, and although it was only a small problem it was affecting his whole life," she recalls. "He didn't read or write and he had taken a job as a chef because kitchens are such noisy places that everyone lip-reads."

Denise has since worked in several special schools, latterly part-time. "My project involved investigating one of those questions that teachers carry around with them.

"Having been involved in several integration projects it was clear that children with special needs mature more quickly when they get into a mainstream primary and are then more likely to go on to mainstream secondary. But the reasons weren't obvious. Was it because of peer groups or because the staff in mainstream schools treat them differently? I could either go on wondering about it or test it out."

She looked at two carefully-matched groups of six children with severe learning difficulties in two Oxfordshire schools - a mainstream primary and a special school. All the children were aged seven to nine and were either at level 1 or working towards level 2.

It soon became evident that the children were being treated very differently in the two schools (see box below). "In the special school, the children always referred to the staff by their first name and therefore didn't make the distinction between school and home. Children were being treated on the basis of their academic age rather than their chronological age, and they had no responsibility for putting on their own coats. It was also obvious that everything was done at the speed of the slowest child.

"The teachers admitted that it was often quicker to help the children than let them do it themselves. But they didn't consider that the warm, family atmosphere of the special school might be a drawback."

Denise quickly adds that she is not suggesting that special schools do a worse job than the mainstream sector. In fact, she clearly identifies with the special school sector and repeatedly refers to ESN pupils as "our children".

"I'm also not saying that we shouldn't cuddle the children because it will arrest their social progress. But we need to ask whether we are taking on the role of parents."

Denise has had at least one foot in academe for several years - she has a Master's degree and has worked as a part-time lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. Nevertheless, she admits that she needed help with the research from the university's Dr Sonia Blandford.

"The university staff managed the project and decided on the methodology - they also directed my literature research. That was necessary because teachers often run off and research something, not knowing that there's a great research project on the same subject in the next county."

The TTA grant also helped, but not in the way one might expect. "It paid for a laptop, but what was more significant was that it was an indication that my work was being treated seriously. It was useful to be able to tell people that the research was being funded by the TTA. That gave it some gravitas."

The next task is to publicise her work:"You need to have confidence to get into research and even more to disseminate your findings." But she would also love to get another TTA grant to continue her work.

"I do believe that there is a place for teacher-researchers," Denise says. "Our strength is that we're on the 'inside' and understand entirely what we're researching. Our relationship with teachers in the schools we are studying is also slightly different. Nobody puts on their best party frocks when we arrive."

Denise Dew-Hughes's main findings were that children with severe learning difficulities who attended the mainstream school: * could work either co-operatively or on their own for up to 300 per cent longer than their special school peers;

* had a classroom day more than two hours longer than the special school's

A comparable group in the special school:

* seemed less mature and more dependent on adult help;

* were given little responsibility for their own belongings and equipment, or opportunities to choose their activities;

* had a classroom day of only three hours aand 20 minutes because teaching was frequently interrupted by changes to individual timetables, medical visits, and withdrawals for therapy.

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