My Special School

By Roberts, Mark | NATE Classroom, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

My Special School


Roberts, Mark, NATE Classroom


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In January 1999 I arrived at Valence School in Kent to take up the post of Head of English. I had previously worked my way to Head of Drama at a mainstream comprehensive and had been a teacher for four years at that point. I arrived, not only as the Head of English, but also as the only English teacher in the school. I arrived as a teacher with good skills, strong motivation and a desire to make a difference. Yet the majority of my colleagues saw it as backwards step, a step away from progression and a move into the backwaters of education because Valence School is a Special School, a school for students with disabilities and complex medical needs. The preserve, in the view of many, for those unable to manage in mainstream education, or a nice pre-retirement option. Certainly not a career enhancer.

This was brought home to me when I attended my first meeting out of school, to discuss SATs of all things. I sat down at the nearest table and there were the usual introductions. When I revealed that I taught at Valence, I was kindly directed to the Special School table.

The separateness of Special Schools is undeniable; we are not working in the 'mainstream'. But the view that this means that there is little to learn from Special School practice is somewhat mistaken.

When I began teaching at Valence I saw myself as a very able and capable secondary school teacher, but I found that a lot of the skills I had developed were effectively around the management of number: the ability to manage a classroom space and the attention of 25 or more students with varying degrees of enthusiasm for what I had to offer. What I was unused to was the individualisation that comes from a class of less than ten. It sounds like it should be much easier--but because of the complexities at times it feels like teaching ten lessons at the same time. I was used to differentiating my lessons, but not in such fine detail and not beyond the bounds of my own subject, and certainly not to encompass the physicality of the student.

I had never worked with physiotherapists or occupational therapists as part of my teaching and planning. Yet their knowledge has a direct bearing on the ability of the student to perform any tasks and to learn.

Imagine for example that you are balancing on a large ball with your feet off the ground. Now pick up a book and begin to read, or even more simply, listen to and follow some instructions. What happens (and I have tried it) is that you have to concentrate so much on staying on the ball; you have very little brainpower available for learning (and then you fall over). For students with complex physical disabilities this is their body experience and without appropriate seating and positioning, they have little concentration left for lessons. If you then think about the seating and desks in most classrooms, you might also reflect upon what we are asking of all pupils. (And yet providing for those in offices. Sit the headteacher on a classroom chair for a week!)

We also have a significant number of non-verbal students, who require some kind of aid to speak. The most common aid is a communication book, from which the student selects appropriate words and occasionally phrases. If you try using one you rapidly become frustrated because the word you want is not there. The word is in your head, but getting it out is incredibly difficult, even if you can spell and type--which most non-verbal students can't. Try having a conversation with someone when all you can do is type your responses--it works with a patient single partner, but try it in a group discussion and you are rapidly left behind. The only alternative is to wait--which leads to frustration and boredom for all as it becomes very slow.

But back to the communication book--what do you put in it? Critically information about food and drink, personal care issues, people and feelings English teachers do not create them. …

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