Addressing Inclusivity: Our Experience at Oakley House

Reading Independent Education is always a humbling experience. I learn about the great work being done by others and there is no doubt that inclusive education – and catering to students with learning challenges – is an area of growth for education institutions.

Oakley House in Cape Town is a school dedicated to special needs, and it now seems relevant to share some of our experiences and insights and to describe how we attempt to address root cause issues in education.

Oakley House is a relatively ‘new kid’ on the independent school block, born from addressing the special needs of a handful of children in 2007. We started with a preparatory school then went on to meet thedemand for a high school campus, and our first set of matrics graduated in 2017.

The Oakley House preparatory and high schools collaborate closely, but have significant differences associated with the different life stages of the student bodies. An important difference is that the preparatory school provides ‘remedial’ education, while the high school provides ‘special needs’ education. Remediation is an attempt to address learning backlogs and the prep school is geared towards that.

By the time students reach high school, whatever backlogs exist are largely there to stay, so the culture shifts to students ‘growing into’ their learning challenges.

The preparatory school

The learners who find themselves at our preparatory school are those who are not thriving in mainstream classrooms. How do we meet their needs?

For a start, there are no more than 10 learners per class, so each one can receive individual attention. Special needs education requires teachers with particular expertise, so we look hard for those with post-graduate training, proven experience and a heart for the field.

Special needs issues are seldom simple, so our learners are supported by a multidisciplinary team of on-campus therapists who work closely with our teachers. Finally, each child needs close and regular monitoring and this is done by the full team measured against individual education plans, which are drawn up to support each learner in their greatest areas of need.

This is the framework within which we work, but how does our programme align with special needs? Deficiencies in language development are virtually a given in the special needs space and this area receives strong support at our school in the form of a dedicated literacy programme for all learners.

Project-based learning popular

A project-based learning (PBL) approach is a recent development in our programme. Many of our learners struggle to engage fully with their learning and to make the necessary connections, and it is through the PBL teaching philosophy that we aim to engage them more fully. We are using PBL to replace a more traditional approach to teaching life skills in the Foundation Phase, and in the Intermediate Phase we use PBL to teach content subjects.

Most exciting is that, despite our special needs context, we are joining many of our colleagues in explicitly teaching our learners skills that living in the 21st century demands. We have based our research into PBL on the works of the Buck Institute for Education and their PBLWorks, including their ‘Success Skills’ which we have embraced.

We are targeting collaboration, problem solving and self-management, as we have found that our learners struggle to acquire these skills. We build the use of these skills into the development of a project.

Oakley House Preparatory School

Other approaches used in the preparatory school

An essential skill required in our modern world, and therefore a skill to develop through education, is thinking about thinking. We are on a journey towards becoming a Thinking School through Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA). Currently, through the use of the eight Thinking Maps, De Bono’s six Thinking Hats, and multiple Visible Thinking Routines, we are working with our learners to develop their thinking skills, and what better context in which to do so than in the PBL classroom.

Another new development in our programme is the Development Education Neurodiversity (DEN) class. A minority of our learners find the challenge of learning in a group context too great, even in a class as small as 10, and even with all of the targeted support in place. These learners are all on the autism spectrum and the DEN class is a dedicated space for them on our campus, tailored to their needs, and with their own teacher.

This teacher targets the deep-seated needs of these more complex learners in her teaching and works on a highly individualised plan for each of them to pursue learning at their grade level. Their time in the DEN class has a limit, after which they should transition back into our small classes.

With the required sensory support, therapy, and careful training in group functioning skills, and within the reduced anxiety context of this class, we trust that these learners will flourish.

Running like a thread through all that we do with our learners, is our ethos – we embrace the uniqueness of each learner and nurture a sense of self-worth and confidence. Our aim is to see happy children at play, who are learning to be their best selves. We believe in what we do and we believe that we make a difference in the lives of our learners.

The high school

Invariably, we find that many teens with special learning needs in mainstream schools present as ‘problem’ students. Punitive systems designed to enforce obedience and conformity are arguably not concerned with root causes and in the high school, we put great store in understanding each student’s needs.

Very small classes are an absolute necessity when it comes to dealing with special needs through individual attention. Discipline-wise, we leverage a system of ‘Alerts and Reflection’ rather than demerits and detentions and this goes a long way to drilling into the root cause of behavioural issues.

Articles in last quarter’s edition of Independent Education emphasised the importance of empathy, mentoring and a reflective mindset as ways to reach and teach the individual, and we echo that these are absolutely necessary in the special needs space.

We are only too aware of the potential stigma students feel attending a special needs school and so we strive to make our school as ‘normal’ a place as possible where students are content and not focused on distancing themselves from their school.

Our catchphrase is Remarkable education – Created for you. It is indeed remarkable and encouraging to see how well teens can indeed embrace each other’s differences, and how students displaying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism spectrum issues, pervasive developmental disorders, anxiety and a host of other less easily defined symptoms exist quite happily and respectfully together. As the villain in the film The Incredibles so wisely put it: ‘Once everyone is a Super, no-one is a Super’.

Oakley House High School

Alternative strategies

A cohort within our student body has more severe cognitive challenges and we address this by offering them a few alternate education paths that begin in the preparatory school. In this Alternative Stream, we offer an Amended Learning Programme for younger learners that prepares them for the vocationally aligned Transition Focused Education stage, which in turn readies students for independent living and the world of work.

We also offer a General Education and Training Certificate route for students who can’t quite meet the demands of National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) Grade 9, and we are now piloting a General Educational Development route to provide a National Qualifications Framework Level four, which is the result of a complete matric/Grade 12 year. The Alternative

Streamers are fully integrated into school life and they too are seen as no different from the other students. When a multiracial, multicultural existence is thrown into the mix, it offers hope for the future.

Sun Tzu in The Art of War says: ‘Strategy without tactics slows the victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.’ At Oakley House we have learnt that battling symptoms is akin to tactics; responding with agility to root causes is the strategy for ultimate success and continual improvement.