fri 02/12/2022

A Special School, BBC Wales review - heartwarming film about special needs education | reviews, news & interviews

A Special School, BBC Wales review - heartwarming film about special needs education

A Special School, BBC Wales review - heartwarming film about special needs education

Lovingly made and inspiring new series shows what's possible for students with special needs

Wonderfully life-enhancing television

This warm-hearted and informative documentary series about life in a Welsh special education school probably isn’t going to be a ratings buster for the BBC but it’s one of the most touching and well-made shows I’ve seen in a long time.

A Special School adheres to the classic format originated in Educating Essex back in 2011. We are rapidly introduced to a cast of quirky teachers, loving parents and the remarkable young pupils they support. Producer-director Ffion Humphries filmed the series last year at Ysgol y Deri near Cardiff, which claims to be the largest special school in the UK. It provides education for more than 270 children with very complex and diverse conditions. Ranging in age from three to 18, the school caters for children with both physical and learning difficulties. The inspiring head teacher Chris Britten described the school’s approach brilliantly: "We all know what these children can’t do, they get told every day what they can’t do when they go out into society, they know what they can’t do, so we’ve got a culture here of finding out what they can do."

The resourcefulness of the teachers, therapists and support staff is hugely impressive, whether it’s working out that a student locked in by physical disabilities can communicate their complex thoughts using an eye-gaze tracking device, or that Amy, a blind and non-verbal student loves the feel and sound of machinery in the woodwork class. The use of high-tech assistive technology is exemplary for the students who are non-verbal, while the needs of other students who battle with the anxiety, sensory challenges and mental health problems that often go along with autism and/or learning disabilities are met with psychological support based on observation and empathy.A Special School, BBC Wales Humphries gave plenty of time to the staff who express the huge job satisfaction they feel when they can help a non-verbal child find a way to be understood. It’s also impressive that the filmmakers ensured that as far as possible the children got to address the audience directly; camera-conscious students take huge pride in sharing their achievements with the viewers watching at home. There’s no sense here that we’re invited as an audience to pity these kids or gawp at their disabilities, rather that we get a chance to admire their ingenuity and spirit as they show their best selves to the world. 

The first episode also filmed the students on a week-long residential trip provided by the Calvert Trust at its purpose-built site in Exmoor. It’s a major logistics exercise to include all the pupils with complex physical and medical needs. For 16-year old Jacob, born with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia, it’s the first time he’s spent a night away from his parents. His little brother touchingly talks about being jealous of what a good time his sibling is going to have. All the familiar activities of such trips – kayaking, flying down zip wires, toasting marshmallows – have been adapted to ensure that every student, no matter their disabilities, can take part if they want to join in. Watching a wheelchair-using student descend the climbing wall is awe-inspiring, while the kids revelling in the final night disco reduced me to tears.

Even when the cameras captured instances of that dread phrase "challenging behaviour", we were shown how well they are settled by the school’s five-strong team of behavioural specialists, who understand that kids acting out is a way of communicating their unmet needs. Trying to sort out those needs first, without resorting to pointless rules and punitive discipline, is shown to work so well that it made me hope that every teacher and educational policy-maker in the UK would see this series. It’s disgraceful how many children with special needs are excluded from education because of their behaviour, without finding out what’s triggering it.

It would be wonderful if every special school in the UK was as well funded and staffed as Ysgol y Deri; it’s obviously an exceptional showcase for what can be achieved with enough money and high ambition. There’ll be a lot of parents of disabled children and people working in special needs education who will be watching this series and contemplating moving to Penarth. The rest of us can just enjoy some wonderfully life-enhancing television.

Watching a wheelchair-using student descend the climbing wall is awe-inspiring, while the kids revelling in the final night disco reduced me to tears


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Superb capture of the essence and heart of this spellbinding documentary. Great writing

Brilliant documentary, guaranteed to make you cry in admiration.

Gosh, yes, each episode made me cry. I found myself wishing that the ethos and attitude in this very special school could be replicated across all schools, for all pupils. I think it would transform our society and world for the better, retain teachers and mean that school would actually be a place that all kids would want to go.

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