A taste of freedom

The smile on the boy's face said it all. Sailing single-handed across a sea loch would be a special moment for any child. But for Reggie Fernie, who uses a wheelchair, it was an adventure he never thought he would have.

It was a moment to treasure for the staff at Carrongrange special school, too. The school is pursuing the new freedoms offered by Scotland's curriculum for excellence to work with other children's services in the area to radically extend its outdoor programme for pupils with special needs. Seeing the effect has been an education, says the head, Gillian Robertson.

“The staff phoned me to say, ‘Reggie is sailing across Loch Insh by himself, singing’. It meant so much to him that he did it by himself.”

The new curriculum, says Robertson, is providing a big boost. “We are putting a big emphasis on independence as a goal for our young people and we see outdoor education as one of the best ways of delivering that.”

This pioneering work may help schools like this one to persuade parents that the special school sector has a rich programme on offer. With only 134 pupils, around half the number it had a decade ago, Carrongrange, one of the UK’s dwindling number of special schools, is now having to persuade some parents to choose it rather than mainstream.

The outdoor work has developed from a project with Falkirk council’s outdoor education team. Initially, it involved taking out groups of older boys with challenging behaviour overnight, hiking in the mountains and staying in isolated huts or “bothies”. It was so successful that the school has been able to win funds to widen it to a weekly slot that involves all pupils and offers activities such as wheelchair abseiling, canoeing and mountain biking for children with moderate to severe disabilities. All children are now offered residential outdoor education. In order to do this, the school has had to be supported by social workers and family support workers.

“The risk assessments can be quite daunting. You may be talking about taking a child in a wheelchair who might have a fit at any time up a mountain. All the professionals involved are taking a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. We are aware of the consequences if anything goes wrong. It would be easy to say, they can’t do that, it is too dangerous. But of course they can,” says Robertson.

The school is awaiting delivery of its first rough-terrain wheelchair. “This is partly about extending our policy of inclusion to outdoor education. The other children can help to push the wheelchair. It is also part of getting them to work as a team.”

Robertson and her staff have been working with the support of Falkirk council’s Active Steps coordinator, Sean Benz, and outdoor instructor Eleanor Adams.

“Part of the success of this has been down to their enthusiasm. They have put a lot of work into thinking, how can we do this activity with children in wheelchairs?” Robertson says.

Adams says: “Every single pupil has been really enthusiastic about what they have been doing. One of the things we do is tandem biking. Autistic kids are often quite good on bikes but they may not be so good at the steering and braking. So we will put an autistic child on the back seat of a tandem and another child on the front. They love it, and it is really good for their social skills.”

Benz agrees that the programme is not focused on developing skills per se. “I had a group out on a hill walk this week and they were splashing in puddles, playing in mud, wanting to run down the hill. That is something they just don’t get to do in their own communities.”

Last year, Benz took a group of pupils, including one with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), on a trip to the Alps, where they climbed and slept in mountain huts. “There was one boy who wasn’t very good at reading the path. Someone had to help him down. But recently, when we went on a hill walk, he took responsibility for helping the others down and he was saying exactly what we had been saying to him. He was mentoring the others and it felt as if we had come full circle.” Robertson says that although the provision for children with special needs is moving in a positive direction generally, there is one area for improvement – post-school provision. Competition, even for unskilled jobs, seems to become ever fiercer, and procuring work experience for her charges can be tough. To that end, the school rents out its meeting rooms and provides on-site catering two days a week, with pupils preparing and serving coffee and lunch. However, post-school, Robertson fears that some will end up in day centres while others end up sitting at home too much. “There is more sheltered housing available, and that is great, but people don’t just need somewhere to live – they also need something to do.”

The Guardian
Tuesday April 22, 2008