The first thing that visitors to the PACE Centre remark on is how happy our children are, how ‘bubbling’ with enthusiasm, how determined to do well. PACE, an independent special school, is consistently ranked as outstanding by Ofsted but all of our children have to overcome severe physical disabilities, and too often other agencies have displayed remarkably little ambition for them. Mainly, our children suffer from cerebral palsy, which is a neurological condition caused by damage to the central nervous system between gestation and early childhood, sometimes as a result of extreme prematurity or birth trauma. Some of the children, who are aged up to 14, will be using electric buggies, or in wheelchairs, but whenever possible we’ll be helping them to learn to walk.
Each morning starts with a movement programme, as little by little the children learn to gain more control over their body movements, in preparation for the school work which fills the rest of the day. This in itself is a tough challenge for them before they even start on their lessons. These incorporate the national curriculum at the appropriate level, alongside the teaching of communication, self-care and mobility skills.
The movement programme is often based on the principles of conductive education, pioneered at the Peto Institute in Hungary. But PACE is about far more than this, and as well as our ‘conductors’ our trans-disciplinary approach involves teachers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and learning support assistants. They all work as a team, and it’s humbling to see how together they construct meticulous individual lesson plans for each child.
Our overriding goal at PACE is to help each of our children to become as independent as possible in their current and future lives. Some of them will never be fully independent, and after they leave PACE will go on to suitable residential placements. Many, though, will go on to mainstream schools, where we can continue to support them, and some go on to university. When I was last in PACE, our key stage three class was off to Tesco to buy ingredients for a cookery lesson.
The PACE Centre started in 1990 with just five children, before moving to its own purpose-built school on the outskirts of Aylesbury twenty years ago. The recent opening of a second campus allowed us to set up an innovative Infant and Parent Service for babies and children up to the age of three who have developmental delays and disabilities, especially those leaving neo-natal intensive care units. This is a vital addition, because it is in the early months and years that the brain can adapt and change, offering the best possible outcomes. And of course we can support new parents too, who are having to come to terms with the huge parenting challenges that now face them.
On top of all this, PACE offers an outreach service, supporting children before and after their time with us, as well as a sessional service to help those who don’t attend on a full-time basis. Our services now look after more than two hundred youngsters and our training suite is enabling us to spread the PACE way of doing things to practitioners throughout the country. Inevitably all this comes at a price, and with burgeoning numbers and cuts in Local Authority budgets, we have to raise a million pounds each year just to cover our running costs. We are tremendously indebted to everyone who helps us.