Integration at the Gatehouse

Integration at the Gatehouse

Published by Action Research for the crippled child 1975

Take 300 children between the ages of two and 15 - some of whom are physically or mentally handicapped - some of whom have intelligence quotients of more than 170 - and some of whom are happily ordinary - and you have the successfully integrated community which is the Gatehouse Learning Centre. For Mrs. Phyllis Wallbank, the headmistress, sees her independent day school as a community where each child, helped by the teachers and by other children, is able to develop his full potential.

Mrs. Wallbank was well ahead of her time when she pioneered the education of handicapped children alongside normal children more than 20 years ago. But it has never been deliberate policy on her part, just something which has developed in the school over the years.

When she founded the school in the gatehouse of St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in the City of London, in May 1948 she had eight pupils. At the time her husband was the curate of St. Bartholomew's, and Mrs. Wallbank, a trained teacher and former children's officer, wanted to return to teaching. Having her own children prevented her from going out to teach, so she started her own school with her £12 a year dress allowance as the only funds.

Gradually the school grew and so did its reputation. One day one of the children asked if his younger brother, who was a mongol, could join him at the Gatehouse, and soon Mrs. Wallbank found that the school's teaching, which is Montessori-based, is ideally suited for educating handicapped and normal children together and now each class in the school has at least one handicapped pupil.

As the Gatehouse outgrew its original home in St. Bartholomew's gatehouse the school expanded into three separate premises, and only this year has it come together under one roof in a large old Victorian school building next to Victoria Park in Bethnal Green. Parents and friends of the school raised £50,000 (including gifts from the Tesco chain and the Variety Club of Great Britain) to buy the building, but £60,000 more is needed to complete the building programme and give the school central heating. The Gatehouse was formed into a charitable trust in 1964 and has attracted the attention of educationalists in Sweden, France and America.

The children come from every social strata and background, and from a wide catchment area, which embraces all London as well as parts of Surrey, Middlesex, Kent and Essex. They range from the highly intellectual through the normal to the severely subnormal, physically handicapped, autistic or emotionally disturbed child. The physical handicaps include those caused by blindness, deafness, epilepsy, spina bifida, brain damage and cerebral palsy.

About 75 children come from deprived families - either one-parent families or those in inadequate housing - and about 60 children are classed as maladjusted. Ten per cent of the pupils pay no fees and the fees of many other children are paid by their local authorities. Mrs. Wallbank cannot remember a time when the school was not full to capacity. She apologised for not having a school brochure to show me, but explained that they had never needed one. The present waiting list is three years long.

In a school like, this, which absorbs and develops so many different types of children, the teacher/pupil ration is high with some 30 teachers for 300 children. As well as the school subject teachers some of the handicapped children, particularly the blind and the deaf, have their own special teachers who come in to the school to give them the special tuition they need.

Teaching is based on the Montessori system - a method of educating young children, both normal and defective, initiated by Dr. Maria Montessori of Rome, which is aimed at educating by direction of natural activities rather than by strict control. For example, school starts at two and a half in the kindergarten where the children learn the beginnings of number work and phonetics using both sight and touch, as well as coordination and hand control, with a wide range of basic equipment. They also enjoy ordinary activities. On the day I went to see the school one of the small boys in the kindergarten was busily cleaning the windows. "We do lots of cleaning," one of the kindergarten teachers explained, "The children learn to clean their own shoes, for example, and everything they do they learn to do properly, including the right way to wring out a cloth when they're cleaning windows."

After this good beginning by the age of seven each child is doing seven subjects a day, and they all learn Latin and French. Latin is taught as a "live" language against a background of Roman history and the myths of ancient Greece, and an interesting fact is that dyslexic children seem to find Latin easier to read and write than English.

The children are grouped in classes according to their age groups, but each child keeps his or her own timetable and is responsible for spending an allotted time each week on every subject. This varies from child to child depending on their individual abilities. They move from one subject teacher to another during the morning, which is divided up into half-hour periods, working at their own pace. I asked Mrs. Wallbank if the lack of competition among children working in this individual fashion was a drawback. She felt that on the contrary the children set their own targets and sights and leant earlier to beat their own records, like a long distance runner.

In the afternoons there are a number of recreational activities, including fishing in nearby Victoria Park, swimming, ballet, fencing and organised games. There are frequent outings to places of interest in London and to films and theatres. When I was there Mrs. Wallbank was taking some of the older children up to Scotland for a week.

Many of the children cover the common entrance syllabus by the age of 14 and then are able to go on to the school of their choice - others stay and take their "O" levels - but there is no compulsion on any child to take exams and no rigid age limit for doing them.

For example, John came to the Gatehouse when he was two and a half, and from an early age it was obvious that he was a brilliant mathematician. He was allowed to forge ahead in this subject and by the age of 10 he sat an "O" level mathematics paper and got 95 per cent. He won a scholarship to the City of London School.

Andrew, who is eight, was found by a local authority to be unteachable and disruptive in class, although he was said to have an IQ of 166. The local authority was persuaded to send him by taxi each day from Harrow to the Gatehouse, where Mrs. Wallbank soon realised that he had a logical and mathematical mind. He was given some advanced maths books and some Latin books which interested him and on which he worked. When he opened his mouth and made strange noises, no one paid the slightest attention, so he stopped. Soon he was learning to conform and take his own place in the school community.

Jill came to the Gatehouse late, at nine years, having had difficulty with reading and writing. She had been having medical treatment for maladjusted behaviour and a specialist physical examination confirmed brain damage. After two years at the school she was reading and writing fluently and doing simple number work. In fact, she was so much better that she was moved on to another school, but in the new school the subjects were not specially geared to her and she gradually became inactive again. Mrs. Wallbank arranged to take her back at the Gatehouse and devised a special programme for her which included learning how to travel by herself and how to handle her own money.

During my visit I met an 11-year-old girl whose severe brain damage has left her with a mental age of seven. She has a special teacher but otherwise works and mixes happily with the other children in the seven-year-old class. Mrs. Wallbank tells proudly of the ex-pupil who was paralysed and wheelchair bound after polio and is now a successful architect.

More than most educationalists Mrs. Wallbank not only believes in integration within her school but also sees her school as integrating within the local community and providing a centre where anyone of any age can come to work on a subject of their own choice - hence the name Gatehouse Learning Centre.

To start with she has a plan for integrating the old age pensioners. An old people's community centre adjoins the new school building and Mrs. Wallbank hopes its members will become part of the centre. "Education should not be limited to a particular age group," she said at the opening ceremony for the new building. "Maybe somebody leaving the docks would want to learn Latin. We would want to help someone who just cannot read. We will find a tutor for them for little bits of the day and they will work at their own pace. They would not have to pay money, but in return they would have to teach a child something. Either about the old days in Bethnal Green, or perhaps one of the old traditional games like hopscotch or marbles, which are dying out."

A long-term idea is to build a block of bedsitters to let at reasonable rents, every seventh room to be for a handicapped person. A 'mother' would be there for any handicapped person seeking help in the final stage of establishing his or her independence.

Mrs. Wallbank also has ambitious plans for the new building. Already the undercroft has been reclaimed and now houses the art department and a 'disco' for the older children, complete with a set of drums and coloured lights for atmosphere. Future plans include a hydraulics system which will collect water from the roof and pipe it into every classroom, where there will be troughs, fountains or pools. Mrs. Wallbank has seen water used widely in American schools. She feels that it would be valuable to introduce a natural sound into an urban school and also that handling water can be both instructive and fun.

Robin Webster, the architect for the new school building, plans to create opportunities for the children to explore and understand the building. New galleries are to be built in all the classrooms, making use of the present high ceilings, and a wide ramp for those children in wheelchairs will thread its way through the building giving access to all levels. In addition to this ramp and two existing staircases, there will be more novel ways to descend: by a fireman's pole; by a chute to the playground and by a scramble net with a safety net below.

It is difficult not to be over-enthusiastic about the Gatehouse Learning Centre, but it is obvious that both staff and children are enthusiastic about it too. The staff in particular feel that mixing normal children and those with handicaps is of great benefit to all the children. "Why people in some schools group all sick and handicapped children together I cannot imagine," Mrs. Wallbank said. But wasn't she building an oasis, I suggested, a very special school with higher standards than most schools could hope to attain? Mrs. Wallbank disagreed; she regards herself as a pioneer in the integration of handicapped children into an ordinary school, and believes that in the future more and more schools will follow her lead.

As I left the Gatehouse some of the children were getting ready to go on an outing to the theatre. They were sitting grouped in their red cloaks waiting for the coach. Before they left each handicapped child had to have an able partner. The competition to be partner was fierce. "Who will be Johnny's partner? and there was an immediate flurry of hands - who will partner Kate?" prompted an equally enthusiastic response, until all the handicapped children were happily paired off.

Having witnessed some of the personal cruelty which is often meted out to children whose disability allows them to attend ordinary schools with healthy contemporaries in the name of integration, I was delighted to see at the Gatehouse Learning Centre that integration can be a happy and worthwhile experience.