STAFF and children at a Darlington school have hosted a senior minister to help him learn more about education for youngsters with special needs.
Jonathan Slater was just a few days into his job as Permanent Secretary for the Department for Education when he visited Marchbank Free School on a fact-finding mission.
The free school, which is part of the Darlington-based Education Village Academy Trust, opened in 2013 with 16 primary age children, many of whom have been excluded from mainstream schools and have social, emotional or mental health difficulties. The school now takes 43 children.
Principal Mandy Southwick told the visitors: "We believe we are a mainstream school with special children, and certainly we are measured in the same way. Our children aren't expected to make any less progress than those in mainstream schools.
"Many of our children have missed or had disrupted education before they come to us. The longer they are here, the better the opportunity they have to catch up with their education.
"We aim to give them as many tools as we can so they can go on to succeed in secondary school."
Members of the school council spoke to Mr Slater about life at Marchbank before he and Andrew McCully, a Director General at the DfE, and Trust Chair of the Board Jim O'Neill visited each of the classes where they saw children learning about Mars, making information booklets about dinosaurs and writing up arguments for and against zoos.
After sitting in on an assembly in which the children received 'shout out' rewards from their friends and certificates from staff, Mr Slater said: "It's been very interesting to see the emphasis here on rewarding children for good behaviour rather than focusing on the negative and the importance of relationships in making them feel safe and cared for.
"It was very moving to watch children who have been excluded from mainstream schools sitting quietly, listening, putting their hands up and answering questions politely. To see that in any school is good but to see it here was rather wonderful. Whatever they are doing here must work."
Mr Slater said he was keen to see different approaches to education in different areas.
He added: "The point of the DfE is to help schools do the best they can. It's important for me to see what goes on in individual schools so that when I am back in the department I can ask 'will this decision we are taking make the lives of the people here easier or harder?'."
Chief Executive of the Education Village Academy Trust Mike Butler said the demand for special education in the area meant the trust was seeking to expand provision and considering submitting an application for a second free school.