Anne Hailes: How Fleming Fulton School gives young people a chance to shine
I DON’T usually go out for morning coffee but I couldn’t resist the invitation from Karen Hancock to join guests at Café 15. And I wasn’t disappointed.
This cafe is part of Fleming Fulton School in Belfast and it’s a Special School in so many different ways. There are 121 pupils aged from four to 19 and each has a unique educational need, be it a physical disability with associated learning difficulties, medical or sensory, including epilepsy and autism, perhaps a baby born prematurely and under developed needing specific care as they grow.
Karen, who is the school's principal, explained: “Apart from education, we’ve many specialist provisions including a range of therapy options – occupational, speech and language, physiotherapy and consultants who hold clinics in school taking pressure off parents having to attend hospital for appointment and reviews.”
Walking into their school is like walking into a rainbow; there’s colour everywhere, wide corridors, big windows, a sports hall and I watched children strengthen their bodies swimming in a huge, well-used swimming pool.
Classrooms are tailored for the needs of pupils. For little ones, areas are partitioned to allow one-to-one concentration, and from outside and through a window I watched one little four-year-old autistic boy learning to count using bright coloured numbers, a dedicated young woman working with him, patient and smiling.
Everything is about learning how best to cope with life and secure a fulfilled future.
:: Back in the big dining room
Courtney took me to my seat and my order was taken. Usually parents and friends come along but this was a special morning where invited guests included Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast, and her husband.
This cafe fulfils many aspects of learning, right from the front door where 17-year-old Courtney met me, one of a dozen boys and girls each with their own role to play, be it serving, cooking or acting as maître d’. She was polite and informative, she overcame any shyness and told me about the cafe and how the work is divided between pupils, the delicious sausage rolls served on a pretty patterned plate with a knife and fork wrapped in a napkin, red sauce optional, a cup of tea or coffee and a selection of tray bakes or a slice of the Cake of the Day, all baked in the kitchen.
The pupils come not only from Belfast but from further afield – Moneymore, Armagh, Pomerroy but the Area Plan is causing concern.
:: The executive summery states:
'Special schools provide an important contribution to enabling learners with significant and/or complex special educational needs to engage and benefit from education. Currently provision varies in structure, type and operation within and across the five Education and Library Boards (ELBs).
'The move towards a common regional area plan requires a reconsideration of the existing geographical profile, structure and type of special schools so that pupils with significant and/or complex special educational needs can access provision closer to the community in which they reside.'
This could impact on all special schools in Northern Ireland including Fleming Fulton.
Dr Fleming Fulton established his school in 1957, designed for children with various disabilities. The majority had spina bifida and Miss Anne Martin, principal from 1957 until 1984, insisted on a normal curriculum to open doors for her children who one day could move on to university-level education.
Pupils came, many in wheelchairs, to be educated and attend occupational therapy and speech therapy classes, also to have vital physiotherapy each week at the school at Upper Malone. In the early days one newspaper reported that floors were examined for splinters as some children could only move by crawling, ladders were put against trees for able pupils to climb for the first time and debris was removed from the pond and replaced by goldfish, frogs and little boats to entertain the less mobile children.
The ethos is the same today but the working of the school is much more sophisticated, with top-of-the-range equipment, trained teachers, classroom assistants and general assistants who help with feeding, toileting and taking pupils to their classes, all these are paid posts.
“Some pupils can communicate and some are less able, some are in wheelchairs and others find it difficult to get around easily but these are still young people who don’t want to be pitied but respected – they have a voice and should be heard," Karen said.
"Some of our pupils have come from mainstream schools for various reasons, often because their special needs mean it would be hard for them to fit in with the general curriculum and sometimes there could be physical dangers.”
Is there a case that mainstream schools should be more aware of special needs children?
:: Such a move is very positive
The dedicated teaching tailored to their needs has resulted in well-rounded children gaining confidence and enthusiasm, feeling safe and valued. Sport is important: when I was there there was excitement as one pupil and two past pupils were about to jet off to Finland to take part in the European Powerchair Football Cup.
A lot of emphasis is placed on challenging the young people to socialise; through working in Cafe 15 they learn how to deal with the public, take criticism, the basics of catering.
Other qualifications include maths and English, and vocational studies bring them a wide range of experience; visits to the zoo, the museum, train trips, setting up a mini-company using computers and learning coding, also taking part in Young Enterprise schemes and attending Springvale Learning campus.
But what happens after 19 when they leave the security and stimulation of Fleming Fulton?
University is an option but, as Karen pointed out, with their qualifications, the right kind of support and understanding, many of her pupils could find jobs to suit their situation and the hope is that employers would give these young people throughout Northern Ireland a chance to shine.