I KICKED off this new series by looking at the subject of Autism in the last East Antrim issue of Wizard Ads. I spoke to Margaret Field. Margaret is the East Antrim branch chairperson for PAPA – Parents and Professionals and Autism; the Northern Ireland Autism charity. In a wide-ranging interview, Margaret briefly mentioned special needs schools. She noted, “they can be extremely difficult to get into. The ‘statementing’ process is long and complicated and many parents have to fight for an appropriate place for their child”
This made me think about special schools in the North Belfast and Newtownabbey area. To find out more about one of these schools – Hill Croft – I spoke to Sonya Hall who is Secretary of the Parent Teacher Association.
The school is due to celebrate its fortieth year as an Educational Establishment in 2006. It first opened in Rathcoole Methodist Church in 1966 and then moved to its present site in Abbots Road in 1973. “At the moment we are eagerly awaiting the move to our new school which is at Manse Way, Campbell Road, New Mossley”.
At the moment there are currently 77 pupils on the roll although the maximum enrolment should only be 76. Hill Croft provides educational opportunity at Nursery, Primary and Secondary level for children aged between 3 and 19 years. However, unlike their counterparts in mainstream education each pupil has an individual education plan designed to meet his/her special needs.
“The school has a Junior department with five classes, two Intermediate classes, two Senior classes one of which provides a suitably supportive environment for our pupils who have profound and multiple difficulties, and a Post 16 Base which supports two classes of students aged between 16-19 years. In total we have 11 classes.
In the early years of education at Hill Croft the curriculum is experienced through the vehicle of play. As the child moves through the Junior department activities presented are of a more formal nature, however, the emphasis still remains on learning through first hand experience.
The local community provides the children with a rich source of learning experiences; these are carefully planned outings which are necessary to enhance the learning and teaching which takes place in the classroom. The outings are many and varied ranging from visits to local shops for shopping skills, farm and zoo visits to support topic work and also places of local interest, parks, beaches and forests to support curriculum areas such as science and geography”.
In Senior school the curriculum is designed to meet the transition from school to adult life. The emphasis is on the practical application of the acquired knowledge, skills and experiences, in particular on social and life skills such as cookery, personal hygiene and life in the community. Senior pupils also enjoy weekly visits to venues such as local library or bowling to encourage the young adults to make the best use of their leisure time. School Leavers attend the local Further Education College one day per week for Home Economics, ICT, Art and PE. These links are both rewarding and challenging.
Returning briefly to the subject of Autism, Sonya said, “We have a high percentage of children who have been diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder in addition to their severe learning difficulties. Our structured learning room caters for the very complex needs of these children. The teaching strategies adopted in this classroom are quite different to those used in the mainstream of the school”.
So what about the Parent Teacher Association and Sonya’s role as Secretary? The PTA was formed in 1987 when Hill Croft was transferred from Northern Health & Social Services Board to North Eastern Education Library Board.
“Hill Croft like all Special Schools in the Board area is responsible for a very small proportion of their budget. The delegated budget awarded to the school is limited and is only sufficient to go towards necessary classroom equipment. Fortunately we have a very pro-active Parent Teacher Association that constantly searches for new ideas for fund-raising in an attempt to provide new equipment for the boys and girls. We have four office bearers - Chairperson, Vice Chairperson, Treasurer and Secretary”.
Fundraising must keep her busy then? “Yes, most definitely fundraising is one of our main functions as organising an event takes time and commitment from everyone. Although we spend a great deal of time fundraising we also keep up to date with all aspects of the school and any other events which affect our children’s daily lives, such as Respite Care and the Summer Scheme. For the past two years we have organised Charity Nights with local drama companies as these are fun evenings, which all members of the family can attend. Our PTA also helps out in practical ways by making tea and scones at events, which the school hold at their annual Christmas Service and Sports Day”.
The PTA fundraises in a host of ways - by holding a ballot at Christmas, two Charity Discos a year, one Flag Day and a Quiz Night. They continually fundraise as this allows all the children to benefit in different ways to suit each of their needs. For example they give each of the classes £200 to spend in September as the class may need different equipment for its varying pupil range. Money has been given for Aromatherapy, Music Therapy, Residential Trips, Class Outings and Presents. The PTA have recently donated a large amount of money to the Hill Croft Minibus Fund to fund the deposit on their new 'Sunshine Coach' and help annually with its running costs.
Despite the hard work involved, Sonya says “I personally enjoy fundraising to provide for our children as it makes their lives more enjoyable and I feel that in a small way we are making their lives happier. I enjoy it personally when an event has taken place and we have succeeded in raising much-needed funds. There is a great atmosphere when everyone is out together and we know that we are helping the children”.
However there’s also the humdrum parts to Sonya’s role as Hill Croft PTA Secretary: taking notes at meetings and preparation of minutes, preparing a monthly News Sheet to parents to keep them informed of forthcoming events and to try to get as many parents/family involved as possible.
“I (try to) keep all our paperwork up to date with the local authorities and I beg for prizes for our ballots. Most of my work involves typing of some description and I tend to do this late at night when everyone else is in bed and the house is quiet. A PTA can benefit a school when it works as a team and thankfully each member of our PTA is committed to help improve the life in which our children live and I can only thank them for their continued support”. I hear that the next quiz night is to take place in the Whitehouse Workingmen’s club on June 3rd. It’ll be a great night, so don’t miss it!
I’d like to return to Hill Croft once their move is complete later this year. In the meantime, folks who want to help with, donate to, or learn more about the work of the PTA can contact Sonya Hall. Phone her on: 028 9086 5704.