Today as part of our course, we had the chance to visit a “special needs” school here in Oulu. Tervavayla has been in existence for about 100 years, first as a school for children with hearing impediments and then it grew to a school of learners with different “special needs”. There are about 100 children in the school which also acts as a training and resource centre for anyone who wants to be trained in “special needs” education and care – which is normally parents, care givers and teachers in “normal” schools. Most children move on to “normal” schools from this special school, some just come for a few weeks to receive special training or therapy and others stay on at the school their entire education.
The building is literally an award winning building. The was a competition and the winning design was chosen and built as the school. Um yes. Then you know. It was built in 2006/2007 so everything is spiffy and new and shiny. It houses the school, the training centre as well as accommodation for the 15 students who live at the school on a semi perminant basis because their homes are far away.
The building is well suited for wheelchair (and every kind of chair) access and mobility with elevators to move between the five stories and wide brightly coloured corridors. An example of small attentions to detail are how the floors are decorated as one exits the elevators: Some pupils at the school may not be able to read words (yet or ever) but they are taught and can read symbols. So, the symbol for home (a house) was inlaid into the flooring in front of the elevators that open to the accommodation level of the building. This is so that pupils who can only read these symbols can read that they are on the “home” or accommodation level of the school. This allows for independent movement for many more pupils than just having a number (like, level 2) painted on to the wall.
Finland has one curriculum for all schools. What happens then in the “special schools” is that individual learning plans for each pupil are created in with parents and professions according to what they understand are the pupil’s abilities and needs. This is constantly reviewed and assessed and adjusted accordingly. As with the Finnish general curriculum, the idea is that school is child centred and learning is the aim, not marks or grades.
Teaching teams and adult:learner ratios
There is one teacher for every class and there are about 4 to 6 pupils in a class. Sounds pretty fantastic, hey? But wait, there’s more… There are about 3 to 4 teacher’s assistants (TAs) in each class too. These TAs are themselves (Finnish) qualified teachers. In addition to this, the school works closely with the university hospital and each pupil has a team of nurses, doctors and every kind of therapist who care for the pupil and consult with teachers and parents about best practices for each child’s specific situation. The modus operandi of the school is, after all, “individual solutions through collaboration”.
Classrooms are light, airy and spacious. There are teaching aides, decorations and timetables on the walls. Height adjustable desks are on wheels and can easily be moved around the classroom. There is a digital projector in each classroom (and a smartboard) and all manner of educational aides. I saw screens to enlarge objects, words and pictures being used in a few classrooms but there were probably all sorts of things that I did not recognise that were also there. All the classrooms that I saw had little rooms adjacent to the classrooms which I presume were teachers’ studies or spaces for focused learning for pupils (not really sure what they for actually).
Spaces in the school
The school has a gym, a cafeteria, an outdoor play space… all the things a “normal” school in Finland has. These spaces are somewhat modified for the needs of the pupils. For example: there is a trampoline in the colourful sports hall which has some other machine working with it so that children in wheelchairs can bounce on the trampoline. A-mazing,
In closing, I was astonished by this school – its architecture, the relaxed teachers, the happy and confident pupils, the resources, the attention to detail for each child… There is a lot more I could say and I may have got some facts wrong but if you want to read more about the school, you can go tho their website (available in Finnish and English) http://www.tervavayla.fi/en.
For me, the thought that kept revolving around my head all day was… “this is all free, this is all free”. That made me so angry and frustrated when I thought of all the people I know back home with similar challenges who, even if they paid incredible amounts of money would not be able to get this type of education and care. And here it is, all for free for everyone.
In thinking about this school and the South African context I come from, its easy to just think, well, we don’t have the money for that so, ja, whatever. But if you are reading this and seeing these photos and you have some doorway into “special needs” education I hope that seeing this will inspire you rather than depress you. That you will see ways to change and challenge knowing that there are other ways for things to be done… ways that retain the humanity, dignity and spirit of those who are so often not counted as part of “normal” society. The Finnish approach to “special needs” education is not perfect and should not be copied out of its context but for me, my take away from today is to not stop dreaming about future possibilities in education and keep trying, trying, trying.
(A few notes on this post. 1. I have never really thought that much about “special needs” education before this and I am really no expert in this area. 2. I was only at the school for 2 hours. 3. I know there is no real politically correct way of naming these schools or spectrum of challenges so I’m putting them in quotation marks to show that I am uncomfortable with the term, but have not yet had any brainwaves about new names. 4. I have called non-special needs schools “normal” school because that is what they are called in Finland).