Written by Simon Knight - Joint Headteacher at Frank Wise School & National SEND Leader at Whole School SEND
As someone who has spent their career focussing on the education of children with severe and profound and multiple learning disabilities, both in the classroom and beyond, I try not to get too worked up by the belief expressed by some that Special schools should not exist. It seems to me a bit like trying to eradicate poverty by abolishing food banks. Whilst Special schools may be indicative of a system that is not universally inclusive, I don’t believe they are the singular cause of exclusivity. Whilst we may be segregated from the mainstream, it does not mean that we are segregated from our broader communities. Many Special schools work hard to ensure that barriers are broken down, that presumptions and generalisations are challenged and that opportunities are open to all pupils. The school I help lead prides itself on the work it does, both with and within the local community, to ensure that our pupils are visible and valued members of the community in which they live.
So here are some of the things we do to be more inclusive:
One of the most important things we do, is the provision of mainstream based education for every child up to the age of sixteen, irrespective of the complexity of need, for a half-day every week. We have direct partnerships with around eight mainstream schools across eleven classes, covering Primary, Secondary, maintained schools and academies, faith schools, comprehensives, and the independent sector. This means that each and every week approximately 350-400 children come together to work in partnership in a reciprocal relationship which sees us visiting mainstream settings and pupils from mainstream coming to us. This has a profound impact on both sets of pupils, and the staff who work with them. Interestingly it has also led to some of those mainstream pupils growing up and choosing to work with children with SEND.
When our pupils reach sixteen, they move up to the sixth-form and the curriculum changes significantly, focusing more on the functional application of what has been learned. This means that they spend significant time working within the local community, to ensure that their learning is transferable beyond the highly structured and supportive environment of the school. As such the students are ‘out and about’, as they describe it. They are actively engaging and interacting with and within the local community, through the use of public transport, traveling independently, shopping, using the local facilities and amenities, as well as going to the local restaurants for lunch. They participate in the local community and they also contribute to it. We have attended local planning meetings and the disability partnership board, ensuring that our students get the opportunity to have their views heard as part of the education we offer.
Our Post-16 group runs a wide range of Enterprise activities and one of these is the half termly Coffee Mornings, attended by families, past pupils and members of the local community. Each one is open to all, but they also target particular groups, such as businesses and employers, other professionals and those who live in the vicinity of the school. They also go out into the community selling their products within the local shopping centre or at the local market. All of this serves to break down barriers and raise awareness of what our pupils are capable of.
We have a programme of residential visits from Year 4 onwards, prior to that there are day trips, and our starting point is that every child should attend every trip, as long as this is supported by their families. That means children doing everything from an overnight in a local town to a week in Barcelona. For us, Health and Safety is not a barrier, but something which needs to be carefully considered in order to overcome the hurdles we may face with regards to universal participation.
We are very lucky having a large Hydrotherapy pool and, having prioritised our own pupils needs for both therapeutic use and swimming lessons, this is hired out and made available to the public throughout the week. This brings the community onto our site, often at a time when our pupils are moving around getting to and from lunch or out playing. They get to see what a Special School looks like and how our pupils conduct themselves.
Now I know this isn’t going to change the minds of those who feel that we shouldn’t be needed, who will rightly identify that this is significantly less time in mainstream education than a permanent placement. However, this is time that is functional, purposeful and meaningful to both our pupils, their mainstream peers and the community itself, learning together inclusively. Sadly, something which cannot always be said of those children with SEND placed within mainstream settings.