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TX: 13.04.04 – SPECIAL SCHOOLS – Part 3 – Sybil Elgar School For Children With Autism

PRESENTER: CAROLYN ATKINSON AND LIZ BARCLAY



THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY

ATKINSON
Now all this week we're looking at special schools and in a moment Call You and Yours will discuss the choices available to children with special needs. In the second of our reports we look at the options for educating children with autism. The Sybil Elgar School at Southall in London was opened by the National Autistic Society in 1965. It's considered to be at the forefront of educating children with autism providing the inclusion and the social setting that they feel their pupils can most benefit from.

John Thorne went to the school to meet the pupils and staff.

ACTUALITY
ATKIN
My name's Jill Atkin, deputy principal, and I'm going to give you a guided tour of the school. The first classroom is a year 11 tutor group …

THORNE
Can you tell me what you're doing here?

CHILD
I'm relaxing having had our lesson.

ATKIN
We have the view that our youngsters are teenagers here so that's - that's how we treat them - it's very age appropriate model.

THORNE
The Sybil Elgar School was opened in 1965. Sybil was a Montessori teacher persuaded by the parents who'd agitated and organised to create the school to turn their ideas into practice. At first it was for just nine autistic students in a converted house in Ealing. Now the school is in this building in Southall, its bright corridors decorated with children's paintings and artwork with a student role of about 70 - day pupils and borders - aged between 11 and 19.

ACTUALITY
ATKIN
This is the art room which is the centre of all sorts of excellence - every pupil's got their own art folder …

THORNE
Jill Atkin proudly continues the tour.

ACTUALITY
ATKIN… and we do weight our curriculum towards music, towards art, towards dance, towards drama - anything that will support our youngsters in their communication and interaction.

THORNE
Tony Kay wasn't one of those original parents but he was chairman of the school governors for 18 years. He describes the school as leading edge because it's always driven forward people's knowledge of autism by encouraging research and researchers in its own classrooms.

KAY
It's also served as an amazing Mecca, sort of an example for people not just in this country encouraging others to start similar schools but also for people from other countries where there was nothing. It gave them hope - they would come and observe what happens in this school and then went back and did similar things in their own countries. And the last thing is it's been a marvellous sort of test bed for research, some very famous names in autism now, on the research side, a lot of them did their time at Sybil Elgar as classroom assistants and then went on to further study.

THORNE
All students have access to the national curriculum but with particular emphasis on communication and social skills that can help them develop the greatest measure of independence. Jill Atkin shows me the cafeteria where the students run the whole operation.

ACTUALITY
ATKIN
The whole point is making things real, we're not teaching things in isolation here. Another feature of autism is that our youngsters find it very, very difficult to generalise, so teaching something in one place doesn't necessarily mean that it will be learnt and transferred to another situation. So whatever we do here has got to be real life. So when we're teaching maths we're not using plastic money or paper money, we're using real money. And where possible we're taking out into the community and using that real money in real shops. And then in school we have a cafeteria which our key stage 4 youngsters run and the younger pupils go to that and buy their snacks and drinks. So it's real life skills in real life settings. And that's the same with design technology, with science, with everything else. So we get our coats on we go out to break, fresh air and leisure time. For our youngsters this kind of interaction in leisure time is very difficult for them.

Hello. Can you see what's going on? Well done.

THORNE   Do you recognise the microphone do you?

ATKIN      Yes we use microphones in school.

THORNE
And the teacher devotion you sense in the classrooms is matched by people like Elaine Kay, formerly a teacher of special needs children herself, now a disability rights lawyer who chairs the committee that makes sure the school gets the funds it needs for its work.

ELAINE KAY
When I step into the school I am always impressed by the atmosphere, the demeanour of the staff, the respect that's given to the children and what I particularly find impressive is that in autism there's a wide spectrum of ability but this school takes that on board and every child is given an opportunity to develop their talents to the best of their potential.

THORNE
Elaine Kay is the mother of two adults with autism who never had a chance of attending the SybilElgarSchool. As she worries about fundraising she's also concerned about modern educational dogma that seems to favour more mainstream integration for pupils with autism.

ELAINE KAY
I think you have to be very careful when you're talking about inclusion, what you mean by inclusion. A child can be included "in a mainstream school" and be so isolated that their lives are quite miserable. They may have a support assistant and that might be the only person who can relate to them. In this school they have their peer groups who they interact with but they have the opportunity to be included where it's relevant to them and appropriate in the local community.

THORNE
And this message gets through?

ELAINE KAY
I hope that that message is coming across that we have to be very careful that inclusion is not isolation.

THORNE
Back in class Simon and Rebecca are making cards for their parents.

ACTUALITY   
That is good, good boy. That is excellent.

THORNE
The school is very cosmopolitan. I met teachers and assistants from South Africa, from France, Italy and Carmen from Spain.

ACTUALITY
CARMEN
We're making a card and the students are going to put their picture and we're sending it home for mummy. Simon give me a nice smile - smile - Simon smile. Are you going to be the next one?

THORNE
And while some students were off into town to put their real life teachings to the test at the MacDonald's counter or wherever for others it was aerobics, offering some relaxation after the stresses of the classroom.

ACTUALITY
Tense the leg.

THORNE
And Jill Atkin, the deputy principal, explained the importance of the session.

ATKIN
It's a lot of fun for them, they enjoy it and of course it helps them to be physically fit. But aerobics is a tool for all sorts of other things because it teaches copying skills, which is a great precursor for language anyway, and it helps our youngsters to learn to be part of a bigger group and have fun as part of a bigger group and to realise that that's safe for them to do and it helps them to learn all of the other things like interaction and being with other people and sharing activities.

BARCLAY
Jill Atkin, deputy principal of the Sybil Elgar School in Southall in West London, ending that report.

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