Northern Ireland

Belfast special school faces up to inspectors' criticism

Pupils work with a computer
Image caption A report identified 'significant areas for improvement' at Fleming Fulton

It is one of Northern Ireland's oldest and best known schools for children with special educational needs.

But, in May 2014, Fleming Fulton school in Belfast received a highly critical inspection from the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI).

The school has 119 pupils with physical and learning difficulties.

The report concluded that the school had "significant areas for improvement" and it was placed in formal intervention.

Two years on, the school is still in that process, but a follow-up inspection said it had improved in many areas.

Now, staff and governors have spoken frankly to the BBC about the challenges they had to face to turn a corner.

The original ETI inspection singled out leadership and management as "inadequate."

Obvious concern

At the time, the principal, Karen Hancock, had been in post for less than a year.

"The outcome of the report was not what we expected, or wanted," she said.

"What we had to do was look at how the school was being led, and look at people's roles within the school."

"Teaching and learning was satisfactory but, again, we wanted to make sure that it improved."

"Parents were obviously concerned about what was going to happen because when a school goes into formal intervention you get the tag of inadequate."

"We had to reassure them that we were going to take the inspection very seriously and address the issues that had been highlighted."

Image caption Mairead Bradley's daughter Maebh has been at the school since she was three

A school in formal intervention receives specially-tailored support and help from the Education Authority (EA) to improve.

It also has to prove it is taking action to address its shortcomings, and receives follow-up inspections from the ETI.

There are currently only 23 schools in formal intervention in Northern Ireland.

Marian Bradley has been a governor at Fleming Fulton for a ten years.

Her daughter Maebh, who has cerebral palsy, has been a pupil for the same length of time.

Urgent appraisal

She now thinks that formal intervention has been a positive experience, but admits that was not how she felt two years ago.

"We welcomed it in a funny kind of way because it meant we were going to get support to get better, and when we get better our pupils get a better quality of education," she said.

"I'm saying that now a couple of years on, but when that report came out it was devastating for all of us."

The governors were also told to "urgently appraise" their roles in the 2014 inspection, and Ms Bradley said they had taken action.

"For example, I'm a governor but I'm dedicated to curriculum development in the school," she said.

"So I train with the teachers as a governor and I can stand over that teachers are making improvements and I see how the training is impacting on what happens in the classroom."

In November 2015, a follow-up inspection from the ETI found that "key actions and changes" had taken place.

Image caption Fleming Fulton is one of Northern Ireland's best-known schools for children with special educational needs

It noted significant improvements in school leadership, governance, and teaching and learning in the school.

Some things, like planning and the evaluation of learning, still have to improve, and the school is still in formal intervention.

But Karen Hancock said that the school had made huge progress.

"I think it's now up to us to prove over a longer period of time that we can sustain the improvements we have already made."

Fleming Fulton held a "meet and greet" day on 28 April for parents and the local community, and Mairead Bradley said that, despite recent problems, the school staff did incredible work.

Her daughter Meabh became a pupil at the school aged three, and is now in year 9.

"We came into Fleming Fulton and we were surrounded by experts, but they were caring, kind, amazing people."

"So when they first saw Meabh they could see her potential, and until then nobody had ever mentioned that Meabh had potential."

"So to me this school is a place where miracles happen."

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