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Welcome to
Education is Special

This is our online exhibition for CASBA’s project about special education in Birmingham supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We hope you enjoy discovering new stories about this important part of local history. 

This first section is a general introduction. After that you can learn about the history of special education, how special education is different to mainstream schools, what life in schools is like and what issues special school pupils face outside and after school.

Why are we doing
an online exhibition?

Originally, we planned to have exhibitions in community spaces around Birmingham. We wanted people to be able to explore the stories and listen to our interviewees talking about their experiences. Unfortunately, because of coronavirus restrictions, we had to move everything online. 

We believe it is important to include the stories of people with Learning Disabilities in Birmingham’s heritage. We want as many people as possible to learn about this area. We want to challenge any myths and show what the students at these schools can do.

Not everyone with a Learning Disability goes to a special school. We think special schools play an important role. They give a lot of support. They create a community for the people who go there. Please explore the exhibition to find out more.

4 short films about our project

These animated films tell the story of our project. You can either watch them all now or come back to them later. 

They are narrated by Jennifer Brown, our Heritage Project Assistant, who has personal experience of special schools.

Click the button
to watch each video

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Our Magazine

We had a limited number of these magazines printed because it is hard to see people and give them out at the moment. Some of the material in the exhibition is based on the magazine, but they are not exactly the same, so please take your time and enjoy reading it.

Click the Magazine to read
it full screen​!

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THE HISTORY OF
SPECIAL EDUCATION

Education is Special is an oral history project. We talked to people about the last fifty years. We also think it is important to understand what happened before that. 

Click the years for more info!

Some of the schools we are working with are over 100 years old.
Until 1970 there were not enough places in schools for everyone with a Learning Disability. Some people got letters saying their child was “ineducable” and they couldn’t go to school.

PIONEERS OF SPECIAL
EDUCATION IN BIRMINGHAM

On the next page you will see the stories of three women who all played an important role in special education in Birmingham. Teaching has traditionally been quite a female-dominated profession. Three of the four schools we worked with now have female Head Teachers. 

DAME ELLEN PINSENT

Ellen Parker was born in Lincolnshire, but she moved to Birmingham and got married when she was 22.
Ellen was on the Special Schools Sub Committee at Birmingham City Council from 1900-1913. When she started, there were 100 children in special schools. When she left, there were nearly 1,300.

CLARA MARTINEAU

Clara Martineau followed in Dame Ellen’s footsteps. She took over her seat as a councillor and her position as Chair of the Special Schools Sub Committee in 1913.
We can see from the school records that Clara was also a frequent visitor to the schools.

SUDARSHAN ABROL

Mrs Abrol was born and educated in Pakistan. She came to England in 1963.
Sudarshan worked hard to build a career in Special Education, inspired by her daughter, who has cerebral palsy.
In 1983, she became the first woman of Asian heritage to be appointed as Head Teacher of a special school in Birmingham.

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MAINSTREAM &
SPECIAL SCHOOLS

Getting into a special school

Everyone has the right to an education now. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get a place in a special school. The fact file below shows the steps you need to go through to get an Education and Health Care Plan. On the next page you can see what parents said about trying to do it.

FACT FILE

STEP 1

Ask your Local Authority to carry out an assessment.

STEP 2

If they agree, you need to get a doctor’s assessment.

STEP 3

Get a report from your child’s school or nursery.

STEP 4

Complete the forms, then wait 16 weeks for a decision.

STEP 5

Review the draft EHC plan sent by the Local Authority within 15 days.

STEP 6

Receive the final EHC plan within 20 weeks. You can then challenge an unfair decision.

MAINSTREAM & SPECIAL SCHOOLS

Parents on getting a place

JOAN MERRIMAN

Former parent at Victoria School

“I was desperate, so I contacted the papers. They ran a story saying ‘Mother: Why is there no school for my son?’ The Head of Victoria, Mr Jackson, then got in touch straight away and said he was sorry that John had slipped through the net.”

CLARE GRATRIX

Parent of a child at an independent school

“To get to that school, the parents have all had the same struggle, the same fight and gone to the extreme, so we’re all very supportive of each other because we know how hard it is. When we see a new parent at the school, they just look broken and we all think; ‘that was us last year’.”

MAINSTREAM &
SPECIAL SCHOOLS

Teachers’ opinions

JUDY HARTWELL

Former teacher at Victoria School

“In mainstream education I wondered if the students even cared about being there, whereas in special education you always had a good time with them.” 

KERRY PARKER

Moving from teaching
in Mainstream...

PLAY NOW

MAINSTREAM &
SPECIAL SCHOOLS

Students’ opinions

JENNIFER BROWN

Former student at mainstream and special schools

“If I’d gone to a special school, I think I’d have ended up leaving school with qualifications, rather than nothing.” 

HARRY BENSON

Student at Victoria School

“Here, you’re accepted more for who you are, and I bloomed. I thought I’d be pushed more at mainstream school, but it’s completely the other way round.”

HARRY BENSON

Hiding my disability at Mainstream School

PLAY NOW

AOISLIN CONNOLY

Comparing Mainstream and…

PLAY NOW

MAINSTREAM & SPECIAL SCHOOLS

If you haven’t already watched our film, this part has both teachers and students talking about the differences between mainstream and special schools.

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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?

AOISLIN CONNOLY

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.”

AMY SHARP

I didn't talk for 3 or 4 Years

PLAY NOW

MATTHEW

On computers and School

PLAY NOW

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?

AOISLIN CONNOLY

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.”

MARK COPPAGE

Starting at Dame Ellen

PLAY NOW

SHAKUR FRANCIS

The School Day

PLAY NOW

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

PHYLIS

A student from Victoria in the 1960s

Phylis 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. 

At Victoria, Phylis learnt many different things and can still remember some of the things that she learnt with her favourite teacher Pat Miles.

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.  

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

MARJORIE INNIS

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.” 

TERESA FADDEN

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.” 

DAVID DERRINGTON

Remarkable things

PLAY NOW

JUDY HARTWELL

Tiny steps

PLAY NOW

TERESA FADDEN

My favourite class

PLAY NOW

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

PAT MILES

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.”

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

MARGARET RICHARDSON

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.

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

DEL DERRINGTON

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”.

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

DI JINKS

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.” 

KAREN WATTS

It keeps you on your toes

PLAY NOW

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

SUE CLEAVER

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.

LIFE IN SCHOOL​

GRAHAM MALE

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.

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LIFE OUTSIDE SCHOOLS

The saddest part about this project was hearing about the problems for pupils when they’re not in the safe environment of special schools. This video explains more:

LIFE OUTSIDE SCHOOLS

We did questionnaires at the schools. This is what the students said they think of people’s attitudes towards them:

MAINSTREAM & SPECIAL SCHOOLS

“They don’t understand that we have a voice.”

TAYLOR JOHNSON

Changing perceptions of people with disabilities

PLAY NOW

“People think we are babies and we can’t do what mainstream kids can.”

“Because we’re in a wheelchair, people assume that we don’t have thoughts, but look at Steven Hawkins.”

“People think we’re being naughty, but we don’t like being in trouble all the time.”

LIFE OUTSIDE SCHOOL

Leaving school can be a very difficult time for students and their parents:

JUDY HARTWELL

Former teacher at Victoria School

“It was devastating
for them when they had to leave. They were out of childcare social services and into adult social services. School was everything to them and their parents.”

CAROL LEGGET

Former parent at Fox Hollies School

“It was a real wrench when Hayley left, because you felt as though you’d lost half your family. We went back to a few jumble sales, but it just wasn’t the same.”

MARK COPPAGE

Former pupil at Dame Ellen Pinsent School

“I went to college, but I got picked on there and they didn’t do anything to help me. I had work experience in a canteen, but I lost all my confidence.”

LIFE OUTSIDE SCHOOL

JENNIFER BROWN

Heritage Project Assistant

My quote has always been: “The greatest disability of all is those who don’t respect or treat us the same way as everyone else”.

There are now quiet times in shops for people with Autism and sensory needs, as well as special showings in cinemas, but there’s still a long way to go.

I feel that disability awareness training can help these students to get jobs. Our students have so many goals in life. I really hope that their hopes for the future are achieved.

We need to raise awareness of the difficulties that still exist 50 years after we got the right to an education.

You have reached the end of the exhibition. Thank you for taking the time to read our stories and thank you to the National Lottery Heritage fund for making this project possible. 

Designed by nereapr.com

VICTORIA
SCHOOL

The Birmingham Crippled Children’s Association helped to set the school up. Their focus was mainly on children with physical disabilities.

In the early days, facilities were very basic. They had horse drawn ambulances to bring the children to school and there was no hot water.

The new school building was built in the 1960s, although many parts of it have been extended and improved since then. 

Victoria is now part of a federation of schools and colleges, sharing a campus with Victoria College and Longwill school for Deaf Children in Northfield. Cherry Oak Primary School is also part of the federation.

For those who visit the school for the first time, it can seem like quite a maze trying to find your way round it. Everything is on one level, so it is accessible for the many wheelchair users.

They have a swimming pool, sensory room, and lots of play equipment.

The school has a very active Friends of Victoria group, who have raised lots of money to pay for new facilities and trips for the students. 

The school first opened in 1905 on Jenkins Street in Small Heath.

After only four years, the school moved to Little Green Lane, where it must have shared the site with Dame Ellen Pinsent School.

In 1964, they moved to a new purpose-built school on Bell Hill in Northfield, which was named The Victoria School for Physically Handicapped Children.

Our Victoria group were inspirational. Harry, Taylor, Josh, Aioslin, Amaan and Yash were superb ambassadors for the project in the school. They made sure everyone knew about it, collected lots of surveys and did a great job of interviewing.

DISCOVER THE SCHOOL NOW

dame ellen
pinsent
SCHOOL

This school will celebrate its 120th birthday in 2021 and it has changed a lot over that time!

It is now a primary school, but until the early 1990s, it was also a secondary school for boys.

All the classes are named after different animals.

Everyone talks of the welcoming, friendly atmosphere that is still there even as the school has got bigger. 

A new build extension (The Ellen Building) was opened on Monday 6th June 2016. It has a computing room and cooking room.

The school has had problems with flooding, which is why it’s been hard to find any old photos.

As well as all the modern facilities, the school has some lovely green spaces where the children do forest school activities. They also have lots of space to hold fetes and parties for the children’s families. 

The enthusiasm of all the pupils and staff for the school is clear to see.

VIRTUAL TOUR OF THE SCHOOL

Thanks to Amy, Matthew, George and Nathan at Dame Ellen Pinsent school for their excellent work in collecting stories there. Despite being our youngest group, they were great interviewers.

MAYFIELD SCHOOL

Mayfield is the second biggest special school in Birmingham.

For some of the students, English is not their first language, which adds extra difficulties for them in learning.

Nowadays, the school is much more strictly organised and professional, but it still has a very positive and friendly feel and a strong focus on performing arts. 

Mayfield has seen a lot of change, but still has strong links to its history through the dedicated long-serving staff.

At Mayfield, we had a wonderful time working with Hassanain, Shakur, Rashaan, Eesha and Joshua. They were full of enthusiasm, collecting a large number of surveys and recording some fantastic interviews.

FOX HOLLIES SCHOOL

The school’s name comes from the place where it first opened. In 1970, Fox Hollies Special School opened in Acocks Green.

The school was very well connected in the local community and had help in fundraising from the local police and social clubs.

It was a small building with all the classrooms based around a central hall area, where everyone could meet.

Now Fox Hollies shares a campus with Queensbridge School in Moseley.

It was also hoped that this would help overcome barriers:

“Pupils from the two schools are taught to relate positively to each other in a way that benefits everyone.”

There is a sensory room as well as an outdoor space which is used for gardening and playing.

Both schools had a strong focus on the performing arts, so they thought it would be good to work more closely together.

At Fox Hollies, Luci, Callum, Nathan, Reece and Josh did a brilliant job of helping us to collect stories and photos that we could use. They really taught us a lot about the school.