One of the characteristics of Special Education, which often sets it apart from the mainstream, is the fact that we can have children on our roll for the duration of their entire statutory education. Whilst there are some age phase specific Special Schools and some mainstream schools which are all through, 2-19 provision is still currently more prevalent in Special Schools.
With this comes with some specific challenges, in particular the creation of a sense of progression through education whilst not necessarily having the very visible differences marked by going to a new school. However there are also some things which must remain constant if we are going to be able to maintain developmental momentum as children move from class to class. How we achieve this is fundamental to the success of the education we offer. Here are a few examples of how we ensure that we create an effective continuum of learning running through the school from 2 through to 19.
The school’s ethos is absolutely clear, carefully articulated and effectively communicated in a variety of ways. This includes documents such as the prospectus and website, but more importantly through the actions of the staff. In every class at all times we value each and every child as a unique individual. The belief in this being fundamentally important to what we do does not change as the children move through the school. They arrive as unique people and they leave as unique people and our role is to enable them to maximise their individual potential. The children have the security of experiencing a consistency of culture which acts as a supportive structure when other aspects of the school, such as the classroom or teaching team, change.
The systems we have in place for managing behaviour are based around a well defined policy implemented by every single member of staff, teaching or otherwise. Where children have an Individual Management Plan, the expectation is that all staff working in that part of the school should know it in detail. Other staff should be aware of it. We also have an agreed stance to take should you encounter unfamiliar challenging behaviour or should you be unfamiliar with a child’s plan, and that is to ignore the inappropriate and praise the positive, unless it is unsafe to do so. This is constant throughout the school so that wherever the children find themselves they are treated in the same manner. That is not to say it is a uniform approach, individual children have specific rewards, sanctions and systems matched to their individual need and age, but the philosophy underpinning it stays the same. This reduction in variability of adult response actively supports the effectiveness of the approaches to behavioral change we use.
Throughout the school we don’t define children as being particular communicators, but rather work to create a communicatively rich environment in which there are many layers of communicative content. Children will have primary communication tools, but will also be exposed to other communication systems both more complex and less. We use Objects of Reference, symbols, Makaton and spoken language interchangeably and adjust its use depending on the needs of the child and the context within which communication is taking place. This enables us as a staff team to adjust approaches and the complexity of those approaches as and when needed, within a consistent framework.
Our curriculum is created as a structure within which learning takes place. It maps out the skills which children will work towards developing, but it does not define the specifics of how and when that learning will take place. That is done based on the knowledge of the individual needs of the children, established through very detailed developmental assessments. However, there are some general characteristics of the curriculum which change over the duration of the child’s career at the school. These can be broadly summarised in the diagram below:
Early Years has a broad focus around teaching the prerequisites for learning, such as early learning responses, play, early stimulation and early reasoning skills. Much of this work is pupil initiated within the context of carefully crafted, content specific lessons, with the staff often working as responsive facilitators making the best use of the interactions the pupils engage in. The level of staff skill is staggering, knowing when to intervene, how and then how best to evaluate the progress made. This is not provision that lacks direction, it is highly structured, but there is a commitment to capitalising on the successes and mistakes of the children. An acknowledgement that what will be learned may not be what was initially intended to be taught.
Within the primary and secondary parts of the school, the nature of the lessons becomes much more focussed on the imparting of knowledge of specific concepts delivered through carefully structured and highly differentiated lessons in which there is a more definitive learning objective for each child. The breadth and balance of the curriculum is adjusted during primary and secondary to reflect the differing need, with some lessons getting a greater representation than others and with more subject specific teaching. Lessons are broadly an hour in length and will often be self contained activities repeated over a period of time with expected progress both within and across sessions matched to the individual.
In Post -16 there is a significant shift from a curriculum based on concept acquisition to one which is more driven by concept application. This is focussed on ensuring that the learning that has taken place within school can be applied beyond school. If education cannot be applied elsewhere then it is potentially of limited value. Again the balance of the curriculum is adjusted and the focus returns to responding more to the students interaction with learning opportunities based in real life contexts. The lessons will sometimes be up to a day in length with real life chronologies being used to determine the students’ capabilities.
Through this approach we work to ensure that the children have developed the skills and competences for effective learning, then use these to develop knowledge and understanding, before applying this practically in the wider world.
As the children move through the school new opportunities also become available to them. One of the best examples of this is the programme of residential visits that we offer which starts off with a one night local visit and then progresses through longer stays, further away, until the Year 11 pupils spend a week in Barcelona. In Post-16 it shifts again with a focus on the self funding of a trip, with the content influenced by the money raised through enterprise projects.
In Post-16, we also focus on work experience more with all students getting an opportunity to spend time in the workplace, but with a significant number getting the opportunity to complete sustained work placements with varying degrees of staff support. There are also wider ranges of accreditation in place to ensure that we are able to capture what has been learned and communicate that as effectively as possible to those beyond the school.
It is important to note that these are just some of the ways in which we work towards creating a learning continuum and whilst these are broadly consistently applied, the needs of the individual always come first and as such we sometimes deviate from this approach. As a school we are bound together by a shared consensus consistently applied, but equally free from the straightjacket of a uniform approach. We are philosophically consistent throughout the school, but the pragmatics of delivery change, ensuring that the educational experience is a varied and stimulating one for all.