Dame Ellen Pinsent School and Victoria School were two of the first special schools in the city and are probably some of the oldest in the country. Although they both moved premises and changed names in the 1960s, their records show what life must have been like for the first children with Learning Disabilities who ever went to special schools. 

The inspectors’ report from 1905 is shocking not just for the language used, but for what it says about the children’s lives outside school: “The school provides for children who are not only feebleminded, but who are in most cases suffering from some physical defect of nutrition as well.” 

By the 1920s, things had not improved very much. Another entry in the logbook states that: “Eight girls have been excluded from school on account of the verminous condition of their heads”, while the punishment book is full of entries where children were beaten for being “dirty”. 

That these children were getting an education at all was an advance and something that many children with Learning Disabilities across the country weren’t able to access. Thanks to the determination of people like Ellen Pinsent and Clara Martineau the numbers of children in special schools rose spectacularly in the early years of the 20th century. They were two of the first women to be elected as councillors and both chaired the Special Schools Subcommittee on Birmingham City Council. Through their hands-on approach to ensuring that education was being provided, there were nearly 1,300 children in eight schools by 1913, when there had been less than a hundred at the turn of the century. 


Despite the progress that was made at the start of the century there were still many people who were discriminated against. In the 1960s, many parents of children with Learning Disabilities would still receive a letter saying that they were “ineducable” and couldn’t be offered a place at school. Dame Philippa Russell was one of these parents and she started a campaign to end discrimination against children with Learning Disabilities. 

As a result of this campaign, in 1970 new legislation was passed called the Education Act (Handicapped Children). Since then, all children have been guaranteed the right to an education in law. There were still many problems in accessing the right education after this point, but this was a landmark in the struggle for equal treatment. 

Since 1970, a number of other important government reports have been published and new acts passed: 

In 1978, the Warnock Report investigated educational provision in England, Wales and Scotland for children and young people with disabilities. It recommended using children’s educational need rather than their medical categorisation. 

The 1981 Education Act brought in statementing of Special Educational Needs (SEN), consultation with parents and entitlement to a place in mainstream (with three caveats). 

In 2001, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act was passed. This made Educational discrimination unlawful. 

The 2004 Children’s Act brought in safeguarding and assessment procedures, which are potentially beneficial to children with Learning Disabilities. 



Today, there are 27 special schools in Birmingham providing education for over 4,000 children. Many children with Learning Disabilities are also educated in mainstream schools with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) provisions. There is a debate about which is better, but for the thousands of kids who study in special schools, these places provide them with a community of people who understand what their lives are like and provide friendship and support as well as education.  

Through this project, we have been looking at how special schools have changed over the last 50 years and learning how the experience of going to a special school, or teaching at one, has affected the lives of the people we interview. We have also compared the experiences of people who have studied or taught at both mainstream and special schools. We hope that you find the information enlightening, as we have. 

We have found that there is a lot of fear that funding for this vital provision is under threat and disabled children’s rights to an education are in danger of being violated. We hope that by learning more about special schools, people will understand more about their importance, as well as the importance of ensuring good prospects for the children outside of school and after they leave.  

We hope that our project sheds more light on a little understood, but vital part of our communities and adds more crucial stories to the Learning Disability History of Birmingham and the UK. We feel it was important to give people with Learning Disabilities a voice, so we gave the students in each school the opportunity to lead this project and speak out about their experiences, as well as hearing those of previous generations. 


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.


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.

dame ellen

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.


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.


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.