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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Christine Challand

Britain's biggest special education school to feature in heartwarming BBC documentary

On Barry Island beach, a group of excited school kids tuck into ice cream and get ready to paddle in the sea as their teachers look on with pride.

They’ve already stormed the turrets of Cardiff Castle and donned knights’ helmets with cardboard shields and swords to fight a mythical dragon in the keep.

It may sound like your typical school trip, but what sets this one apart is that Ysgol Y Deri in Penarth is on a mission to use the outings to challenge misconceptions about disability.

Britain’s biggest special education school pushes its 540 pupils of all abilities beyond educational boundaries with unconditional love, boundless enthusiasm - and plenty of laughs along the way.

The incredible success story has now been made into a compelling three-part BBC documentary series following the school’s dedicated 430-strong staff and pupils from pre-nursery classes to A Level.

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Headteacher Chris believes letting cameras in was a positive move (BBC/Slam Media)

As the cameras roll, each moment is as profoundly moving and poignant as it is life- changing for those involved.

On Valentine’s Day, when classrooms were festooned with paper hearts and red balloons, 11-year-old lothario Leo Vater composed a song for his girlfriend Niamh.

Teacher Bec Jones pushed an easel covered with song words towards Niamh’s classroom and support worker Darren took up position at the piano in the corridor while Leo beamed excitedly in his wheelchair.

“Love in the sky is bright,” he sang, as Niamh joined him in her wheelchair.

“The sun in the sky rises to you. I love you Niamh.”

The delight on her face as Leo handed her heart-shaped sweets and cheekily asked if she had a present for him was yet another memorable milestone for the pupils.

Leo’s mum Pippa Prior, 33, says: “The dedication of the staff has brought him further than we would have ever expected.

“He’s bonded with everyone he’s in contact with – from his first teacher in nursery and his current staff team, to all the fantastic therapists, nursing team and those who support him in his communication.”

For those in the school production of Aladdin, where 18-year-old Ben Dewsbury starred as the Genie in a bright blue inflatable blue bodysuit, there are no theatrical limits.

The BBC drama will follow the pupils from pre-nursery to A-level (BBC)

“I really was the genie,” Ben says.

“I aced it.”

“Proud doesn’t cover it,” says his mum Dawn Withers.

“We just never knew Ben had this in him. It was our proudest moment. This school is the best environment, the staff are amazing and Ben has flourished during his time here. We’d like him to stay forever.”

Ella Cooper, who played Jasmine, was thrilled to star as a princess.

“Once you get the outfit on, the make-up done, boom, you’re ready to go,” she beams.

“I’m so happy here and I have made loads of friends. I was so very proud of myself for being able to perform in front of so many people and I love singing.”

St Cyres Comprehensive School in Penarth (South Wales Echo)

Headteacher Chris Britten believes taking the unusual step of letting cameras into Ysgol Y Deri has been a positive move for the state-run school’s future.

“When children come to us, parents are relieved they have found such a safe environment,” he says.

“It’s an emotional journey for everyone and we foster a belief that everyone should be included. It’s a place of great hope and optimism.

“The series has prompted interest from similar schools in India and the US who are keen to know how they can develop the same ethos.

“It’s been one of the most exciting aspects of letting people see what we do.

“There’s no magic formula, it’s a place of hope where a positive attitude is all it takes to bring out the best in everyone – staff, pupils and parents.

“People need to see a different side of what these kids have to offer because we can’t take any achievement for granted on any level. They’re not frightened to try something new so neither are we.”

When Chris was appointed in 2009, there were just 200 pupils at the school. But following a merger with two similar schools, numbers are growing fast and there are even plans to open an additional site this year.

Having worked as an educational advisor to the Welsh Government, Chris believes success is driven by learning, activities and staff working together as a team.

On completing the Ysgol Y Deri experience at the age of 19, the transition for youngsters preparing for the workplace seems less scary than leavers and their families might imagine.

Thanks to the school’s link with the Welsh Government-funded internship programme Project Search, teenagers with learning disabilities and autism are able to gain the skills and experience to move into paid employment.

Cardiff and Vale’s NHS Trust is already offering future employability opportunities for pupils who feel ready for the challenge.

Former pupil Charlotte, now 19, has joined the Trust’s rapid response team as a cleaner and is loving her new-found independence after completing an internship.

Britain’s biggest special education school pushes its 540 pupils of all abilities (BBC)

“We have had 12 students go out into the scheme this year and all are really enjoying working in a formal environment,” says Chris.

Bec Jones, who has been teaching at Ysgol y Deri for ten years adds: “There are lots of celebrations, every ‘little win’ is recognised and championed, which creates a lovely happy warm atmosphere. I am so proud that the TV programme has captured the magic of the school. We all laugh and learn together every day.

“Some children lack confidence, self-esteem or suffer with anxiety. I particularly enjoy empowering these pupils, giving them confidence and self-belief.

“If I can give a child and their family one strategy that supports them, it can be life-changing.

“I act the fool - dancing, singing, trying to make the children laugh, but it’s another thing having cameras in your workplace and everyone seeing you on national television.”

Lisa Rees Renshaw, the school’s Assistive Technologist Specialist Advisor, says promoting independence in disabled children is key.

“First and foremost, we want the children to have fun,” she says.

“Once we know they are comfortable, they are engaged in the activities without any demand and certain they are ready to learn, then we can start to use the equipment to teach them.

“There’s nothing more empowering than seeing a child’s face when they realise they have independent control over their movements, whether that’s in virtual reality or reality.”

Lisa, who was filmed with three-year-old Grace firing tennis balls from her wheelchair on the school’s latest Drive Deck technology, says she is an “amazing” example of how technology empowers youngsters.

Lisa says: “The best thing with Grace is that you can’t plan anything because sessions never go the way you think they’ll go so when opportunities arise, you have to go with them and adapt.”

For Jack Jeremiah’s mum Chantelle, 35, watching her six-year-old autistic son on screen shows her the level of progress that’s been made for children with special educational needs in the UK.

In one moving moment, viewers watch as Jack assures his teacher he will “look after him” on a scary fairground ghost train.

“When Jack first started at Ysgol Y Deri he’d been in a mainstream school and was always labelled a problem,” Chantelle says.

“We were scared and upset at the placement in a special school as it was all so different for us.

“He had a few teething problems settling in and I remember when I was chatting to his teacher I started to cry and she put her arm around me and said, ‘Chantelle, remember we’re not just here for Jack, we’re here for you and your family too.’

“No professional had ever said that to me before and then I knew he was in the right place. The progress he’s made is massive, he’s learning to be a responsible little boy and manage his emotions. We feel so lucky.”

For 16-year-old Sophie George, who joined the school from mainstream education four years ago, Ysgol Y Deri is a sanctuary.

“The staff just get it,” she says. “They understand me when I don’t understand myself. They are like my family.”

A Special School, BBC2, Monday March 6 at 7pm and on BBC iPlayer.

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