LIFE IN SCHOOL
Let’s hear from some the people who know best what it’s like to be in a special school. What’s it like to study there?
Student at Victoria School
“From 12-12:30 we have physio in class, which is kind of painful. It involves exercising your body and stretching out the muscles. I have to be careful.”
A student from Victoria in the 1960sPhylis is the only student we have found who studied at Victoria School before it moved to Northfield. She is now in her 60s but she is still friends with one of her former teachers Pat Miles who comes to visit her at Focus day centre in Harborne.
Phylis had some really happy times at Victoria, although she spent most of her time at her home and in hospital due to Hydrocephalus, which is a condition where fluid gets into the brain. The build-up of pressure that this caused in her brain led to Phylis losing her eyesight in her early 20s. Despite this she is always smiling and enjoys dancing.
She can still count to 3 in French, and remembers playing the piano, recorder, and the organ.
Phylis has always been really caring and helpful, always laughing and smiling and this is shown in her memory of the school trip to Bognor Regis. There she helped the other children by pushing their wheelchairs. They went for about a week and she had a lovely time and enjoys talking about the holiday.
Teaching Assistant at Mayfield School
“Over the years, there were times when I wanted to give up and walk out, there were times when I’ve cried and times when I’ve laughed. My love for the school is because I’m here for the pupils, not the staff or anyone else. That’s why I come every day. The pupils give me the strength to continue.”
Teacher at Fox Hollies School
“I might want to cry every day, but boy do I laugh every day. I’m an incredibly positive person and I’ve never given up hope for a better future for people with a disability. I’ll fight for that until the day that I die.”
Former teacher at Victoria School
Some teachers have a very long connection with their schools. Pat Miles is most certainly one of those teachers. In 1964, Pat played the piano at the opening of Victoria School’s new building on Bell Hill in Northfield. When we spoke to her in 2020, she still had a great attachment to the school and was still in touch with some of the pupils she taught when working there.
Very few teachers nowadays would have the dedication to keep coming into the school after retiring and keep up those relationships over so many years. But that is what Pat did. Even after retiring in the 1980s, she continued coming in to play the piano or teach the children to sing, as well as teaching ballet and tap outside of school hours. She remembers:
“I used to play music for the children while they were doing exercises in the hall. It was better to keep them singing, so they enjoyed that rather than just doing physio.”
Former teacher at Mayfield School
When Margaret joined Mayfield in 1968, it was an ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal) school based only on the Heathfield Road site. This awful term is no longer considered acceptable, and Margaret says the school was never as bad as that name suggests. She said that during all her time at Mayfield, it was exciting, wonderful, and challenging. The whole staff worked together. Some were not qualified teachers, but they were excellent with the students.
The school is totally different now. She recalls there being very little equipment in the classroom or play equipment for the students. In her early days, the students were from mainly large white families of deprived backgrounds. During her time there, more families of immigrants arrived, and the population of the school changed.
Mothers used to come into school to help. Some of these were then made Teaching Assistants and paid. The school also had a matron with a very wide pastoral role. At the start of her teaching career at Mayfield, the teacher set the curriculum focusing on the “3 r’s” in the morning and arts, crafts, etc. in the afternoon. The children got themselves to school, there were no minibuses. Then at the end of the day, they were given transport tokens for the bus.
There were no Education and Health Care Plans in place until much later. That meant many students were incorrectly placed in special schools. Margaret does not remember any students with physical disabilities from the early days.
Nurse at Mayfield School
“One of the roles we have is to give supplementary feeds to children who are not able to swallow, or have difficulties in feeding.
When I started, we had a total of three children that needed this, whereas now there are 30 across the two sites”.
Former Speech and Language Therapy Assistant
“We did a lot of phonics, but also Makaton, pictures, symbols for whatever the students’ needs were. I would help them build up sentences and describe what they could see in pictures, or to be able to answer questions, especially saying “no” when they didn’t want to do things.”
Guide, Lunchtime Supervisor and Teaching Assistant
Sue has worked at Dame Ellen for 27 years. She has worked as a guide on the minibuses, a lunchtime supervisor and sometimes helps out as teaching assistant when cover is needed.
As a guide, Sue looks after 13 children on the bus. Her working day starts at 6:30am. The first pick is at 7:20am and she finishes at 5pm. It takes a least 2 hours to collect the children and bring them home again.
It is a challenging and demanding job, especially if one of the children is having a bad day. She feels that people who don’t know about special schools have no idea about the children that go there.
“People need to know they’re not being naughty, just having a bad day”, she says. She has learnt Makaton to help with communicating with the children. Most of all, she loves getting to know the children and families because it is so rewarding.
Driver, Personal Care Assistant and Maintenance
Some staff say their special school is like a family. For Graham Male it was. He was the second of three generations of his family to work at Victoria school. His uncle worked there before him and his son, Barry, still works there as a Teaching Assistant today.
He has seen a lot of changes and says, “They needed strong people to carry the children on and off the buses, because there were no hoists in those days.”
He feels that the building is much better equipped for the children’s tuition now, as the technology has moved on a lot. There was no paperwork as Health and Safety regulations were far less strict in those days.
It meant that they had more freedom to take the children out. “There were trips a lot more in those days – there would be one every day.”
The reception and main office used to be where they stored the wheelchairs. A lot of children didn’t take their wheelchairs home, so they were put away at the end of each day and got out for them when they arrived in the morning. This meant there was lots of manual work for Graham and his colleagues, who had to carry children on and off the buses. Staff also had to carry them in and out of the swimming pools and on and off benches when changing their clothes.