Sally McKeown meets educators with a remarkable record for helping learners most in need
Professor Lord Robert Winston, world famous scientist and TV presenter, opened the brand new £2 million North West London Independent School in Ealing last week.

The school educates some of the most challenging young people in London and offers them a chance to use first-rate ICT facilities to get qualifications and to nurture often hidden talents.

Every classroom has an interactive whiteboard but these are not so much for the teachers as for the pupils who will often work individually and like to use all the visual media at their disposal. Many of the pupils struggle to express themselves verbally and have problems with listening and making sense of information but technology seems to unlock their skills.

"Our students may find writing a barrier," said Jacqui Twitchell, head of service for pupils with autism spectrum conditions (ASC), "and while they might have to use a scribe for their examinations, they will probably use Dragon Naturally Speaking, Movie Maker or Photo Story to help them with their school learning."

"They like the predictability of ICT," said Jacqui. "They want structure. It is comforting in a world where things and thoughts can be chaotic. The key is to be in control, and computers offer them that and a chance to communicate with others, albeit at a distance."

The school provides a specialist service for young people with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD), some of whom have been out of full-time education for up to two years. The aim is to provide integrated support – both educational and therapeutic – so that they can eventually go back into school or college or some other form of education.

"These children are often not used to having someone focus on their specific need," said Anna Jakubiak, head of pastoral care at the school. "We start the day with breakfast together and that may give us an indication of what sort of a day we are going to have." This enables pupils to develop social and independent skills and creates a very positive start to the day."

The school uses "Maslow's hierarchy" as the basis for their provision. Some children have had bad experiences in the past so staff need to start from the beginning, looking after the basic physical and sensory needs of their pupils to give them a sense of security. Next they help them to move on to be part of a group. Then the staff will work on self-esteem, encouraging the young people to find appropriate ways to express themselves and make their own decisions.

'I ran into problems so I started looking on YouTube'

Jonathan is fascinated by the Royal Navy and created a stunning PowerPoint presentation for Remembrance Day which brought together his research and technical skills. While I was talking to him, he pulled up Google SketchUp on a screen and showed me how he uses it to design buildings, creating both floor plans and 3D designs. "When you open the program," he informed me, "there is always a person and you have to delete them." In just a few seconds he had made a floor plan and was rotating and flipping the design. "At first I ran into problems so I started looking on YouTube to see how other people got round them."

ICT teacher Yousoof Dauhoo is a very calm and confident presence. Whereas ICT teachers are often in the position of trying to teach the National Curriculum, his job is also to act as adviser to young people like Jonathan who may have very highly developed skills. 

Lord Winston labNWLIS aims to broaden experience with science tooI met Rhys, a Year 10 pupil who is self-taught when it comes to games making. "I found PowerDirector and thought I would see what I could do with it. I started to make games for playing online. Look at this. This part doesn't look like much but it took three weeks to edit. The graphics were dull and special effects cost money, so you have to find ways to get them cheaper and then they need a lot of editing. The colours still looked a bit dead so I turned up the saturation to improve the colour. A friend did the sound and we send ideas to each other on email."

These two young men were self-assured when discussing technology, even if they find communication a problem in other areas of their lives. They are motivated to use ICT and have good technical skills.  More important, they have learnt how to learn and can access information in a way that meets their needs.

The North West London Independent School is one of three schools owned by TC Education Services (TCES).  Thomas Keaney, chief executive, is proud of their record in helping pupils to get qualifications, "More than 80 per cent of our pupils are in education, training or employment six months after they have left Year 11." That's a remarkable statistic when these pupils' starting points are considered.

Just as important, the dedicated staff and excellent facilities will help these troubled young people to develop new skills and to make sense of their lives.
TC Education Services  

Sally McKeownSal McKeown is a freelance journalist. Her book How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child is due for publication by Crimson Publishing