An inspirational partnership between a mainstream and a specialist ASD school
When we talk about the most appropriate educational settings for pupils with SEN, there is a tendency to consider the debate as being fought between two camps. On the one hand we have those in favour of inclusive classrooms within a mainstream setting. Alternatively, we have those in favour of special schools, attended solely by pupils with SEN, where the entire structure of the school is geared towards meeting their specific needs. Individual pupils, however, are rarely as neatly polarized as these two opposing models suggest. Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), for example, exist as just that, a spectrum of disorders, and no two pupils are affected in the same way. Perhaps, then, it is time to see whether we can extend this debate and think not in terms of either/or arguments, but in terms of a continuum of inclusion where various supplementary initiatives make up some of the ground between mainstream and special school settings.
As an experiment into the potential benefits of such schemes, I was recently involved in establishing a partnership between two Tower Hamlets schools: Phoenix School, for pupils with ASD, and Malmesbury School, a mainstream primary. Seven pupils from a Year 3 class at Malmesbury visited Phoenix once a week to work and learn alongside seven same-age peers. These lessons covered a range of topics, including gardening, cooking, music and drama.
For individuals with ASD, language processing, social interaction and social communication are skills that develop slowly, and large groups of unfamiliar people can often be intimidating and stressful. During the partnership sessions, however, Phoenix pupils met these challenges head on, and their social behaviour and language was often appropriate and mature. Perhaps the greatest success here was for James, a pupil with ASD. James frequently sat and participated for the majority of the lessons and at no point became as overwhelmed or anxious as he might have done in other group situations, such as school assemblies. Instead, his behaviour was often calm and controlled.
Certain of the Phoenix pupils have a tendency to mimic observed behaviours, and in these pupils especially it was obvious that the presence of so many role models had a positive effect on their behaviours.
For the Malmesbury pupils, the experience was quite different. After the first lesson, one Malmesbury pupil commented that Phoenix was a school for “kids that don’t know nothing”, and this seemed to be the general consensus. Over the course of the sessions, however, pupils became increasingly understanding of specific needs and difficulties for individuals with ASD. Before each lesson, Malmesbury pupils were introduced to something that might be found in the Phoenix classroom, but not in their own, such as visual support systems, sign language or sensory teaching strategies. They were encouraged to make use of these strategies themselves during lessons, to better help them talk and work with their partners. By the end of the first term, Malmesbury pupils were confident in discussing the need to reduce their use of language to give extra thinking time and to help their partners.
The Malmesbury pupils recently presented an assembly back at their own school, describing some of the strategies and tools they have learnt to use at Phoenix. They are slowly developing into ambassadors for ASD. The Phoenix pupils are still rising to the challenge and we are now trying to work out how we can extend the sessions through return visits to Malmesbury and joint school trips. Collaborative working between the schools has provided opportunities for both classes to escape the limitations of an either/or model of inclusion. Instead, pupils have experienced the advantages of working in the expansive but less explored grey area between them.
Sam Hindes is a teacher at Phoenix school:
This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.