Before dinner, Sula was enlisted to lay a table and the housemother gently suggested that she count the cutlery as she put it down. Jennie Hall recalls that day: 'She seemed so busy, so happy; everything the children did seemed to be building their capability in
some way. And most of all, watching the way the staff treated Sula, I felt they had looked past her disability right to her personality.'
It was a stark contrast to the fury and
despair Jennie had felt the day she visited the special-needs school that Sula had attended, and found her sitting on a windowsill leafing through a women's magazine. 'I consider it fortunate that I saw so early on how little was being asked of her,' she says. 'Although the headmistress resigned and was succeeded by a lovely young couple - who would, I feel sure, have been very different - we had already looked at the Steiner school called Sheiling and felt it would be right. We were very lucky that the local authority agreed to fund her place.'
Sheiling School, housed in an erstwhile Georgian family home and backed by green fields, is designed as a second home as much as a school for its 42 boarders. They are aged from 5 to 16 years, and their disabilities include multiple handicaps, Down's Syndrome, autism, learning difficulties and behavioural problems arising from brain damage or emotional problems. Sheiling, the oldest Camphill school in England, has just marked its 40th anniversary.
The Camphill movement grew out of the educational ideas of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who believed that the spiritual and creative development of all children should be given the same emphasis as academic learning. His first school opened in Germany in 1919 and others followed in different countries, including Britain. After Steiner's death, Karl Konig - one of his followers - started the first school for the mentally handicapped which applied Steiner's educational principles, in Aberdeen. That was 52 years ago.
Steiner believed that children's imagination and enthusiasm had to be engaged for them to learn effectively - so art, music, movement and craft work are an integral part of academic teaching. He also believed children were emotionally ready to learn certain subjects at particular ages. At six years old, two foreign languages are introduced; reading is tackled at seven, biology and geography at nine.
This approach was adapted for mentally handicapped children in the Camphill schools. Art, music and movement are used in almost all lessons and after-school activities to help children understand concepts and express themselves. In the classroom, boards are covered with neat lettering describing Mum and Dad; addition and subtraction sums are made clearer with pictures of fruit and vegetables. The walls are hung with pictures of glowing suns, abstract trees and colours melting into each other. In English, a story may be acted out and songs created around its theme before the children attempt to read the book.
The approach sounds similar to that of many state schools for children with special needs. What does Camphill offer that is different? Reiner Rinardi, co-ordinator of Camphill schools, explains: 'Within the classroom, it may not be so different - though since we use music, movement and art in almost any lesson, there may be more of that than at most special schools. But more significantly, because the schools are residential and the staff live among the children, we see education and developing the children's abilities and creativities as part of the entire day. Anything from helping with the washing- up to feeding cattle and collecting eggs from the farm will be used to help build skills and understanding. This has a direct influence on how the children develop academically.'
Children wake to the sound of a recorder, and the day is ended with lyre music. Their routine is designed to keep them constructively occupied and to give scope for play, necessary therapies and, importantly, personal time with staff. As Pat Schofield, a co-worker at Sheiling, explains: 'We find it very valuable that teachers here know the children very well. They know how a child has slept, what emotional state he or she is in, which, of course, affects how they are in the classroom.'
The Government's belief, enshrined in the 1981 Education Act, that children with special needs can and should be integrated into ordinary schools (with appropriate support), certainly works well for some. But other children, for a variety of reasons, do not thrive. Angie Wilmott and her husband had a long battle with the education authorities after realising how miserable their seven-year-old Down's Syndrome daughter, Briar, was at the local school in Gloucestershire.
She had been performing all sorts of antics, such as drinking paint and lifting the teacher's skirt. These delighted the other children, but ended in trouble for Briar. She made no progress, says Angie. 'And she cried and cried when she had to go. I couldn't take it.' The situation culminated in a formal appeal before they got a space at Sheiling where, Angie says, 'I've watched her become a competent person with pride in herself.'
Some educationists believe, however, that no matter how caring and committed the staff may be, a boarding-school is not the right environment for a child with disabilities. Sam Carson, head of the schools psychology service for South Glamorgan, shares this view. 'No matter how good an artificial home,' he says, 'it cannot provide the child with the same sense of belonging and being in his or her own place that the parental home will do. On top of this is the loss of the community, of knowing ordinary people and belonging among them.'
Many families need respite from caring for a child with special needs, but Sam Carson thinks it is better for the children to be placed temporarily with foster families. The other risk with boarding, he believes, is that as a child gets older, he or she may be very aware of being a burden, and being sent away to school confirms this feeling.
There is a range of options for such children. Some go to special schools; some are educated in special units within mainstream schools; others are based at special schools but spend part of the week in a mainstream school. Although the Government accepts that special schools are still needed for children with very severe difficulties, complete integration into mainstream schools wherever possible is its goal. Here they are supposed to get the extra teaching support they need. But parents frequently find that staffing is, in fact, inadequate: the Government, they say, has plumped for integration but failed to fund it properly.
Reiner Rinaldi understands the arguments for keeping these children in the community, but feels that the reality is often less impressive than the theory. He explains: 'For many parents, and that includes foster parents, the demands of these children which make them obsessive, hyperactive, noisy and so on, make it hard to cope within a nuclear family, perhaps with little or no help.
'It can mean other children in the family do not get enough attention and it can put a strain on marriages. And the idea that the community at large is supportive and open is too often a myth, so that, far from being part of a normal society, the child is socially isolated. We encourage parents to visit when they can, to be involved with what goes on in our schools.
'We are not trying to replace home or family, but to provide a happy and constructive environment where the children can feel good about themselves and where life is geared to their needs the whole time. Most families
simply cannot do this.'
Walking the wooded grounds, I am engaged in chat by a small, plump girl. She thrusts a sticky hand in mine, beams unguardedly upwards and escorts me towards the fields. There is a great sense of competence in this child, and staff members believe this is to do with the absolute security of the environment. They would like to believe such children can cope in the outside world when they leave, but experience has taught them it is often not possible. So the Camphill movement has developed adult communities with sheltered accommodation, to which many of the children 'graduate'. Here they can live, making basic items to sell and supporting themselves to some extent, but always backed up by carers.
Local authorities have always varied in their willingness to fund private school places, although until now almost all Camphill places have been funded in this way. In the three Camphill schools for children from 5-15 years, there are 185 local authority-funded places and 16 private. But the schools are finding an increasing reluctance among local authorities to fund places: due in part to ideology, partly to budget cuts and unwillingness to use money outside the authority's area. At Sheiling, where they are used to waiting lists of 200, there are now 10 empty places.
In Jennie Hall's view, it will be a tragedy for families if local authorities cease to allow parents the Camphill choice when ordinary schools do not suit them. She says: 'Camphill doesn't work for all children, and the staff are the first to admit this. But there are circumstances where it is difficult for even the most caring and willing ordinary schools to do more than keep these children afloat, especially when the mental age gap between Down's Syndrome and normal children widens. I have seen my daughter flourish at Sheiling and develop high self-esteem. That has to be a good foundation for coping with life.'-
People who can help
Organisations that offer advice and information on bringing up a child with special needs, including how to get the right educational provision:
Down's Syndrome Association, Education Officer, 153 Mitcham Road, London SW17 9PG (tel 081-682 4001).
Sheiling School, Thornbury Park, Thornbury, Bristol BS12 1HP (tel 0454 412 194).
Children's Legal Centre, 20 Compton Terrace, London N1 2UN (tel 071-359 6251:
IPSEA, John Wright, 12 Marsh, Tillingham, Essex CM0 7SZ (tel 0621 779 781).
Network for the Handicapped, 16 Princetown Street, London WC1R 4BB (tel 071-831 8031).
Parents in Partnership, Portakabin by Clare House, Blackshaw Road, London SW17 0QT (tel 081-767 3211).