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School trip: The logistics of taking 90 special needs children to the Paralympic Games

Emma Emma | 10:48 UK time, Friday, 7 September 2012

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Children from St Luke's school attend the Paralympic Games

"Wait for your adult", calls John Warwich - director of special projects - good-naturedly as a small army of teenagers in dark blue uniforms make their way excitedly towards the platform at St Pancras station.

When staff at St Luke's special needs secondary school in Hertfordshire heard that the Paralympics were coming to London, they were determined that their students would be there to experience it. They applied for tickets via the same channels as everyone else and incredibly, they successfully secured the required number.

As I meet them on the train from London's St Pancras to Stratford, assistant head teacher Debbie explains the significance of taking 90 students with learning difficulties and 60 teachers, parents and volunteers to the Games, particularly now that athletes with an intellectual impairment can once again compete.

"It is just such a unique event, to have the Olympics and Paralympics in your home country" She says. "For a lot of our pupils, their families wouldn't be able to bring them. So we just thought, we can't miss it. We have to try and get there."

"Being a special school", Debbie continues, "the Paralympics have a bit more meaning. The pupils can see that there are people achieving, who have very similar disabilities to themselves."

Lots of St Luke's students have moderate learning difficulties. Many have autism and do not like change to their routine. Others have difficulties in social situations and some are very sensitive to noise. So usually, school trips are made on buses, which take the children door to door.

But the Paralympics tickets came with travel cards and the Olympic Park is not easily accessible by private coach, so the school decided to make this once in a life-time trip into a public transport adventure.

Before I joined them, they had split themselves into small groups of 10 to 13 people and made the first part of their journey towards the athletics stadium by minibus and tube.

A small number of pupils are not present, as their parents believed the trip to be too challenging. Other parents chose to tag along with children who might struggle to cope with such a level of stimulation.

Debbie says that for a few students, getting there is more important than seeing the triple jump.

Children from St Luke's school watching Paralympics

"For some of them, it's just about the journey in itself. Some of them have never been in
to London, never been on a tube".

Everyone is calm as we move quickly towards Stratford on the high speed Javelin train. Students come and sit with me for a chat, enjoying the experience.

15-year-old James, who also took photos of the trip for BBC School Report patiently explains the rules of dodge ball, a game he enjoys playing with his friends. I think the aim is not to get hit by the ball.

He goes on to tell me that the Paralympics are "an interesting thing to watch, with all those people who have lost body parts and have trouble moving.

"I think they are very brave and that they are very proud to do it for their team," he says.
14-year-old Martin drops by my seat, keen to tell me how early he had needed to get up to get to school on time and naming the stations he went past on the tube that morning. Then he shows me his wristband.

Although every student has almost one-to-one support from their "adult" getting lost is always a possibility. So they also each wear a wristband, on which is written their name and the number for a mobile phone carried by one of the teachers.

I mention to Debbie that everything seems to be going very well so far. She explains that this is partly because the children with autism have been well prepped for the day.

"A day like this is totally different to anything they normally do, so they've had to have lots of preparation from their parents. Then yesterday they were given little pictures showing them each step of the journey: getting a minibus, walking to the tube, getting on the tube. They've got their own little menu of how the day's going to work."

As we step off the train into the sunshine at Stratford and make our way slowly towards the park, excitement kicks in for the students. One pupil and teacher skip along side by side.

Another gets a happy surprise when his name is called out by one of the ever joyous games-makers. The Paralympics volunteers continue to delight the students as they chorus "St Luke's, welcome!" through their megaphones.

It is a long walk to the stadium. Even though the athletics started over an hour ago, there is absolutely no hurry on any of the students or staff as they make their way through security and towards the action. Everyone takes in the scene with glee, snapping pictures and chatting happily.

I follow behind, feeling quite emotional as I remember my own chaotic and rowdy school trips at both mainstream and special schools. I marvel here at the sensitivity shown to everyone's differing needs and the genuine respect everyone has for each other, adult and pupil alike.

I expected this trip to be a logistical nightmare and to prove almost impossible to manage for those with complex social and emotional needs. But the calm culture and the gentle way the adults support the pupils, facilitating them to have the best experience possible, is just awesome to behold.

As we approach the stadium, I hear adults quietly preparing their charges for the noise and crowds inside. This is an opportunity, says teaching assistant Mrs Seeger, to put life skills they have learned into practice. "They get to show their ticket to people, hand over money at the shop afterwards for a souvenir they have chosen, and say hello to people when they are spoken to."

Two of the younger boys will not be contained, as they bound up the stairs towards their seats in sheer ecstasy.

Once inside, we all take our seats and as Hannah Cockroft breezes through her heat in the T34 200m to a rapturous cheer from 80,000 spectators, the St Luke's crew gets down to the important business of eating lunch.

See a gallery showing the St Luke's trip to the Paralympics soon on BBC School Report.

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