This week I have been interviewing pupils at a small specialist school for young people who can’t get the support they need from mainstream education. It’s in a large old house, a lovely, comfortable, friendly place on a wooded hillside in a beautiful part of Scotland, and it seems that what happens there is almost miraculous.
The students, aged 12 to 20, have cerebral palsy, Aspergers syndrome, dyslexia, anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, autism and a wide range of other conditions, though on first arriving there you would never know it. It’s just like any other school, bustling with noise and activity and youngsters coming and going between classrooms.
Even on closer inspection you wouldn’t necessarily spot the difference between these students and their mainstream peers. There are friendly smiles and plenty of eye contact, a natural curiosity about who you are, together with a readiness to welcome and give directions.
Then you start to hear the stories and you begin to understand the physical, mental or emotional difficulties these teenagers are learning to cope with and overcome. You also hear what it was like before they arrived in this safe haven, and in particular of the bullying they have almost all had to endure. I heard from one young woman of being locked in the kitchens of a previous school by her schoolmates who told her, ‘we’re doing it because we love you’. I heard from a young man who had been ostracised to the extent that in the packed assembly hall of a large city school, the only two vacant seats were those on either side of him. I heard of children being physically abused by their peers and emotionally abused by their teachers. All because of their difference.
When they finally arrive in this secluded place the support available to them is all-enveloping, and it comes not just from the staff but from their fellow students. Unconditional acceptance is the watchword, and as a visitor I found the sense of community palpable. Each individual child is treated according to his or her needs, and one senses that underlying the cheerful hurly burly, there is an immense body of knowledge and experience, along with a complex system of weights and counterweights that maintains the delicate balance necessary for this remarkable place to function.
I heard about new friendships, outdoor adventures, academic achievements, creative accomplishments. I heard about profound behavioural change within weeks of children first arriving. But the thing I found most affecting, indeed almost overwhelming, was the bravery of these young people, not only in dealing with the difficulties that in previous, less loving surroundings had driven some of them to despair and self-destruction, but in their readiness to put the cruelties inflicted on them by others behind them.
Here they are free to be themselves and get on with the business of learning about and enjoying life, as we all do. They seem to do it with particular gusto.