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Meath – A school for language

“But that can’t be mother, mother doesn’t have brown feet!” Said the little goat.

A story about four baby goats and a wolf who wants to gobble them up. Don’t let anyone else in. If they don’t have white feet, they can’t be mother.

A story to explain how passwords work.

This is how my Tuesday at Meath School began; With an assembly on internet safety. Not the most exciting of topics, and certainly not the easiest concept to understand if you find language difficult to follow and your attention skills are limited to just a few minutes. But these teachers are masters of their craft and they have tricks up their sleeves. After the story of the goats comes a hand puppet called Murray, a naughty red dog who tries to hack into the school computer. And later an interactive song all about passwords which has the children in stitches. You have to be creative to work at this school, and these teachers have it sussed.

Meath School is a primary school run by the children’s communication charity I CAN. The children attending this school have a range of language disorders ranging from selective mutism, to speech production disorders, and hearing impairment but all learners have severe and complicated speech language and communication needs (SLCN) as their primary barrier to learning. I came here specifically to observe children with developmental language disorder (DLD, previously known as specific language impairment), which is the specialism of the school. The class sizes are small and each has a class teacher, teaching assistant, and dedicated speech and language therapist.

The seating arrangements in class are individually tailored to the children’s needs: a chair that rocks, a foot rest, a hole at the top where a squeeze ball slots in when it isn’t being used. With an understanding of the sensory requirements experienced by some, noone is restrained in any way. If you need to move your body a little while you listen, you’re free to do so. If you need an opportunity to leave the classroom a while, that’s ok because the teaching assistant can take you outside.

After break two occupational therapy sensory integration sessions show the class how to carry heavy objects and how to wait your turn. Then there’s a tray with wheels on. You have to lie on your stomach and push yourself through the arch at the end of the hall. At lunch there are games of tag and a forest to explore. And later there’s a lesson on King Alfred the Great and how he brought about peace. They learn a lot, and so do I.

Meath School sets the bar high. It serves as a shining example of how research findings can be translated into everyday practice. There is an overwhelming sense of support here, both for the children and for the staff, who have regular meetings to discuss new ideas. It feels like the children are given the optimum environment to achieve their potential both in terms of their emotional wellbeing and their academic success. Meath School provides hope for the future.

Vanessa Lloyd is a first year PhD student at the University of Bath. After working as a learning support assistant in a primary school she realised the potential of research for helping practitioners in schools to discover effective ways of helping children reach their full potential. Her research focuses on the link between Developmental Language Disorder and socio-emotional development. Some of this research will be based at I CAN’s Meath School.

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