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Rachel Woods takes a look at a Government-funded scheme enabling exchange visits between UK and partner schools abroad

“Last year we learned a lot about the children in Uganda from our teacher who went there. I have found out that the pupils in Kampala school have different needs like us. It’s very exciting to meet their teachers now too.” Damien Miller, a Year 7 pupil from Three Ways Special School in Bath, was also enthusiastic about the Ugandan food and the traditional dances he experienced during a week-long visit from Proscivia Kajubi and Florence Nambobi, teachers from their partner school for disabled children in Kampala.

The school has been working with the Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped on joint projects around sport, the environment and multi-sensory learning, as part of the Department for International Development (DFID) Global School Partnerships scheme. The scheme provides grants and support to enable schools to visit their partners and develop projects together on global issues. Thanks to the funding, the two Ugandan teachers had the opportunity to teach and observe classes, including running a PE class to share techniques to increase the involvement in sport of children with SEN.

The experience had real impact on both sides. Kajubi said “My visit has been an eye-opener. I am really impressed by the early intervention to help children with special needs from a young age here and the way pupils at Three Ways are involved in decision making. I will be using my experience to make changes at our school.

“The children in my country are really touched about this partnership. Before, we imagined that maybe other countries didn’t have children who are disabled, but because of this partnership it has opened up their eyes and they really love themselves. They are happy to know that there are other people who look like them in other countries and to have the chance to make friends with them.”

Three Ways Headteacher Julie Dyer agreed: “The DFID Global School Partnerships scheme has made the world outside real and personal for our students. The opportunity to share ideas and work together has been very motivating. Although we are 4,000 miles apart, we face many similar challenges and we have learned so much already from our colleagues and their pupils in Uganda. Special schools across the UK should take advantage of the funding available to bring this valuable experience into their classrooms.”

With around 50 of the 2,000 existing DFID Global School Partnerships involving special schools and 70 special schools holding the full International School Award, interest is clearly growing. There is a move for greater inclusion across the range of international programmes delivered by the British Council.

DFID Global School Partnerships Project Manager at the British Council Brenda Sole said “In today’s global society it’s more important than ever that all young people understand the world around them. To date, however, special schools have been under-represented in DFID Global School Partnerships, so young people are missing out on vital opportunities.”

For Audrey Nicholson, International Co-ordinator at Carlton Digby Special School in Nottinghamshire, two of the great strengths of international work are its power as a tool for functional learning, and the way that it can encourage transfer of learning across the curriculum. Carlton Digby’s wide range of international activity has enabled it to achieve the DCSF International School Award three times.  

Nicholson said “Learning has to be hands on, practical and sensory for our students, who have severe and complex learning difficulties. So if we have an Indian-themed day, for example, we can get children dressing in Indian clothes, looking at Indian art, listening or dancing to Indian music, eating Indian food at lunchtime and we would invite Indian people into the school to speak about their country. There are so many ways to make it real and personal that our students can relate to.

“A particular challenge for our students is being able to transfer learning across different subject areas. International work, in its cross curriculum nature, is a great way to help children with special educational needs to transfer learning, as it provides a thread that gives continuity from one subject to the next.”   

Carolyn Briggs, a teacher at Stubbin Wood in Derbyshire, agrees. Their partnership with a school in Shanghai has been established and supported through Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)/British Council initiatives. The preparation for a visit of teachers and students to the Yang Fan Special School last year involved the whole school and cut across the curriculum:

Before going to China we had, naturally, planned in a lot of preparation. Chinese was taught and geography took on a more personal aspect; climate, clothing, self help and independence skills became fun (going on a plane and staying in a hotel on the other side of the world is a great incentive!). Numeracy became international, looking at currency and time differences, RE definitely became multi cultural and even the getting of passports became part of our curriculum.

When the earthquake struck, Stubbin Wood did not view this as a tragic incident in another part of the world, but took it personally. The children were very concerned that none of their new friends had been involved; again, the sheer size and geography of China was a revelation.

Continuing professional development is also a common theme when talking to teachers. From increasing ICT skills to facilitate communication between different countries, to the benefits of sharing expertise with colleagues around the world, there are plenty of opportunities for teachers and headteachers to develop their skills.  

John Ayres, National Leader of Education and Executive Headteacher of Grangewood Special School in Hillingdon and the RNIB Sunshine House, has shared his leadership experience through various international programmes and has brought valuable learning back to implement in his schools.

On an international head teacher placement in Thailand, I experienced the best example I’ve ever seen of a curriculum that was fully integrated into the community. It was at a small school in a fishing community, where there were several students with special educational needs. The entire curriculum was based on fishing, from mathematics on weights of fish, to language relating to fishing; students could access this at their own level in a totally inclusive environment. Standard of achievement may not have been so high as here in the UK, but it was such an interesting view of inclusion and really brought home that it’s not all about resources, as we sometimes think; we can look to develop a more systemic approach to special education than a resource based one.

There was also a much higher degree of respect and involvement with parents at the school in Thailand, literally to the point that it was parents coming in to clean the school in the morning. It made me come back to the UK and really think hard about how we engage parents; if we can’t do it effectively at a special school, then who can? As a result, we’ve really worked to involve hard-to-reach families and remove the obstacles to their becoming a part of the school community.

At Carlton Digby, international work has provided a host of opportunities to involve the local community, from parents and carers to foreign students from the local university and other special and mainstream schools. It is not all plain sailing though. According to Nicholson, as in so many other aspects, for a special school it is important to think outside the box. It has been difficult to establish sustainable links with schools overseas, partly because in many countries children with needs like those at Carlton Digby are just not included in the education system. The school has just embarked on an EU-funded Comenius project on personal safety, working with two other special schools in Nottingham and linking with a special school in Poland and a mainstream school in Turkey that works with children with SEN. With three UK schools that cater for the full range of SEN between them, they have a better chance of being able to match the specialisms of their European partners. As many of their students cannot communicate through speech, the project will create and use puppets to explore relevant issues.

As well as delivering brilliantly on the Every Child Matters agenda, and community cohesion, our international work has really boosted the self esteem of the students involved. It’s great to see pupils get up and be so enthusiastic about sharing their achievements at assemblies or International School Award events. In fact, I would say that international work has really raised the profile of SEN in general. Many people assume that children with SEN wouldn’t be able to engage with the international dimension, and special schools couldn’t access the International School Award, so our links give us a platform to prove that children with SEN can and do achieve. I don’t feel we were ever really given that opportunity before getting involved in the International School Award.

Nicholson concludes: “Our pupils have a right to be global citizens. Whilst it is often difficult for our pupils to go out into the wider world, we have to make every effort to bring the wider world into Carlton Digby.”


Further information

Rachel Woods is Press Officer Schools at the British Council. To find out about the range of programmes delivered by the British Council visit: www.britishcouncil.org/learning-international-experience

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.

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