by Jarlath O’Brien, head of Carwarden House
One of the defining problems in the British education system is the significant distance that exists between phases and sectors. Secondary teachers can mistrust primary colleagues (“They’re not really Level 5 are they?); state teachers can resent teachers in the independent sector (“Of course their results are great. Look at their facilities! And they’re selective!”); mainstream colleagues can patronise special school teachers (“Ah, you must be so patient.” *Cocks head to one side and wrinkles nose up*).
“So what?” you might say. I know that I have much to learn from colleagues working in schools very different from my own. More importantly to me, though, the stratification of our system entrenches the social isolation that children with learning difficulties face. Not only are they out of mainstream education but they are, consequently, out of sight and mind to most children, teachers and, crucially, policy makers.
Future health and wealth indicators for children with learning difficulties are dire. Research shows that they die younger1; they are more likely to develop mental health problems2; and as adults they are poorer3. Less than 10% of adults with learning difficulties work, and most of those that do work part-time.
Poverty also increases the likelihood of a child having a learning difficulty. Emerson and Hatton5 reported that exposure to poverty and disadvantage appeared to significantly increase the risk of acquiring intellectual disabilities. It is unsurprising, therefore, to find that there are children in my school whose parents attended the same school a generation ago.
The gradient that our students have to climb to secure paid employment means that our curriculum is geared towards doing what we can to improve their chances in the job market. Mencap4 identify the attitudes of others as one of the biggest barriers. Society expects precisely nothing from people with learning difficulties so we need to make ourselves highly visible and secure opportunities for our students to show others what they can do.
My colleagues and I from Carwarden House, a school for students with learning difficulties, have worked hard to build a solid partnership with Wellington College that is blossoming. Both schools are at the extremities of the educational continuum in England. 7% of all children in England are privately educated and 1.1% of all children go to a special school. We appear poles apart but the reality is that our schools, whilst looking superficially different, have much in common, share the same values and are ultimately trying to achieve the same things.
Our partnership started with the recruitment of one of the senior teachers at Wellington to our governing body as a parent governor (he’s now our Chair and has been joined by another Wellington colleague); we hosted a Wellington teacher as part of their PGCE; I sit on the board of the Wellington College Teaching School Partnership; I have delivered a speech at one of their chapel services; we hold our annual Prize-Giving Evening at Wellington College. All good, but not a Carwarden student working with a Wellington student in sight. If our partnership was to have any real strength it needed children to be involved.
This is where Ed Venables and Maria Ramsay come in. Ed is the Housemaster of The Stanley and an Old Wellingtonian and Maria teaches sixth formers at Carwarden House. Each week a group of students from each school meet and students from Carwarden House now undertake work placements in the Stanley boarding house. Ed and Maria have created an inspiring set-up that is led by the students. The staff involved are conscious that the world view of our students will be broadened considerably by spending time getting to know others they would not naturally gravitate towards.
In the first term of the partnership Maria and I were kindly invited to an assembly at The Stanley where the students involved in the partnership explained their learning to the rest of the boarding house. The students had taken the time to learn more about autism, fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome. A common refrain was, “I’m learning more from him than he is from me.” This is precisely the kind of outcome I’m looking for. The social confidence of my students is rocketing and I can see such maturity, fun, sensitivity and creativity in the Wellington students.
The students are all now firm friends and any hesitation or trepidation that may have understandably existed initially is now long gone. As Ed said recently, “When the students are together there is no sense of sector – they are simply teenagers.”
Ed and I recently discussed the progress the students have made this year. It is very hard to quantify but we have an exciting research project in the offing with Simon Walker from Human Ecology on assessing the improvements in heuristic cognition6 of the students. However, much of the dividend of this work will never be seen. It may manifest itself in the career choice of one of the students after university; it may make such a profound impression on them that in years to come they become the governor of a special school as is the case forAntony Power, a governor at Carwarden House. It may be the boost one of my students needs to their social confidence that they manage better in the workplace. It might convince them that they can make lasting friendships with people that they think are different from themselves.
Alvaro from Wellington recently commented to Maria that from now on he would never use the words special needs or disabled. James from Carwarden House recently interrupted a teacher when they commented on the link with Wellington. “It’s not a link. It’s a friendship.”
When I was 15 I spent some time finding out about life in the army. I met another student there who asked me what school I went to.
“Brakenhale,” I replied.
“I’ve never heard of that school. I go to Pangbourne College.”
“It’s a comprehensive in Bracknell,” I said.
“I spent a day in a comprehensive once. It was horrible.”
At the very least that kind of conversation is not going to be repeated with the students who spend each week working, laughing and joking together. They are simply teenagers.
Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School, a special academy in Surrey.
5 Emerson E, Hatton C. Poverty, socio-economic position, social capital and the health of children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities in Britain