Norfolk’s special schools achieve top marks
With 90pc of Norfolk's special schools now rated either good or outstanding, education correspondent VICTORIA LEGGETT looks at why they are proving such a big success story.
Across the country, just over one in 10 schools is classed as outstanding by Ofsted inspectors and a total of 57pc have been judged good or better.
For special schools – which include those catering for pupils with disabilities, learning difficulties and behavioural problems – a considerably higher 28pc get the top rating with just over three-quarters achieving the top two grades.
But in Norfolk, the county's special and complex needs schools are likely to be the envy of their educational peers. Of the 11 operating in this area, six are considered outstanding while an impressive 10 – or just over 90pc – have been deemed good or better. The remaining satisfactory school is expected to reach good at its next inspection.
So what is it that makes our special schools so, well, special?
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One of the key characteristics of the group, which includes the Clare School in Norwich, Chapel Road School in Attleborough and Sidestrand Hall School on the north Norfolk coast, is the way they work together.
Terry Cook, head of educational achievement and improvement at Norfolk County Council, describes the 11 schools as a 'family' which sticks together through the rough and the smooth.
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He said: 'They tackle issues together – every institution, like every family, has ups and downs. The special schools are very collegiate and support each other through those.'
When it comes to the ups, the schools are quick to explain to others how they are maintaining their outstanding service and encourage them to do the same.
Headteachers, deputy headteachers and school managers all meet their counterparts at other special schools to talk through issues and share ideas.
Paul Eteson, headteacher at the outstanding Harford Manor School on Ipswich Road, in Norwich, said: 'There's a real sense of community even though we're spread out – it's a big county. I feel really well supported. If something comes up, I can call a colleague at another school and I know they will be there.'
And it does not stop with their fellow special schools. The group's new School to School support programme sees headteachers working with mainstream schools to help them better cater for students with special educational needs.
An area which consistently wins praise from Ofsted during visits to Norfolk's special schools is the leadership of each site.
At Sheringham Woodfields School, inspectors commented on acting headteacher Carol Evans' 'drive and ambition, which focuses on removing every barrier to learning for each pupil with a disability and/or learning difficulty'.
For Mr Cook, the quality of leadership is the cornerstone of Norfolk special schools' success.
'It all comes from that leadership,' he said. 'It comes from the governors and the heads. They instill an ethos of working hard for pupils in the school and that gets through to the staff.'
But the headteachers do not necessarily see it that way.
Ms Evans, who joined Woodfields School as deputy headteacher nine years ago and took over as acting headteacher in September 2010, said: 'I don't agree with that. I think it's down to everybody in the school. They bring it together.'
Ms Evans said, despite having 90 pupils with a range of complex needs, staff worked hard to treat every student as an individual – something she believes sets special schools apart from their mainstream counterparts.
The school recognises each child may learn and respond in a different way and will need a different approach.
'It isn't difficult at all,' she said. 'They all come in to us as individuals. We meet them a lot more for their annual statement reviews. I know their grandparents, I know their mums and dads.
'They are with us a very long time – they could be with us from the time they are three to the time they are 19 – if you don't know someone by then, it's a pretty poor show.'
All that hard work is done in settings which vary widely in terms of the quality of buildings used by the schools. While some have been lucky enough to benefit from new buildings and improvements to their existing ones, others are in desperate need of a better space.
Chapel Road School in Attleborough has been flagged up by the county council as one of the sites with the biggest need for a new building and has submitted a bid as part of the government's priority school building programme, while Harford Manor frequently has to venture outside the school to find the facilities it needs.
Headteacher Mr Eteson puts a positive spin on it: 'It's great to be out in the community,' he said. 'But we desperately need capital monies invested. We don't have science labs, no PE, no games.'
Mr Cook said the poor buildings some of the schools had to cope with made their achievements even more impressive.
'It's not easy to achieve what they do in poor buildings. We go in and see the Chapel Road staff and they are working flat out – they go the extra mile for the pupils.'
Ultimately, whether you are talking about the team work, the leadership, or the efforts made by both staff and pupils, it all comes down to one thing: 'We work damn hard,' said Valerie Moore, headteacher at Eaton Hall School, which was last month rated outstanding for the second time.
'We work very, very hard. Perhaps our children haven't had the best start in some areas – physically, mentally, in their homes and backgrounds. We are constantly trying to make up for that, give children the opportunities to do things they might not have done before. You have to work exceptionally hard because you are striving for something better.'