Special Schools Linking in Tower Hamlets Report

They’ve all been very enthusiastic and really keen. They couldn’t wait until next time they saw their friends. I think it is a very, very lovely experience for them.’  Natasica Maita, Beatrice Tate School

Background Information

HEC Global Learning Centre, based in London, promotes the values, aims and principles of global learning through all areas of education. Working to support schools in Tower Hamlets and across London, we work collaboratively and as a part of wider networks to develop global learning in schools and communities. The Tower Hamlets Linking Project began in Summer Term 2018, with our first full linking year being the academic year 2018 / 2019.

Our work at HEC Global Learning Centre focuses on local action for justice and sustainability in an increasingly interconnected globe. We work within and between schools to create collaborative, creative spaces where such action and conversation is led by children. Linking schools to this end has enhanced our practice, so that schools actually work together towards a common goal, rather than working in silos.

This document focuses on one aspect of the Tower Hamlets Linking Project, namely our work with special schools. The work is presented through three case studies, which reflect different aspects of the trial. A range of types of special school classes have been involved:

– classes within special schools

– special school classes within secondary schools

– a special school satellite class based in a mainstream primary school.

This range offers this case study a selection of models for future work and we believe that these models are replicable in other contexts.

The rationale behind including special schools is a 2017 hate crime statistic from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, whereby 27 of the 1267 hate crimes reported to the police were disability related. This is a statistic not to be ignored, and the Tower Hamlets Schools Linking project provides an ideal space to bring children with different abilities together to work and problem-solve together. Our aim in doing so has been not only to promote being more comfortable with difference, but to support a process of recognising the value in difference and diverse ways of inhabiting our world.

The work with special schools has served to be a trial, which we hoped would provide a framework from which we can continue to explore the inclusion of special schools in our projects with mainstream schools. In view of the hate crime statistic against people with disabilities, we believe it is our duty in the sphere of education to bring children together to address the integration of different needs and abilities towards a more cohesive community.

However, whilst including special schools in our linking project was an aim of HEC Global Learning Centre, we were concerned that special schools would not be responsive. This was not the case and in fact six classes from special school backgrounds have been involved in the Tower Hamlets Linking Project during 2018 / 2019.

The data for this case study came from a series of semi-structured interviews with teachers, using the following guiding questions:

  • What did your school leadership hope to gain from having a link with a special / mainstream school? (ie strategic reasons)
  • What do you think as class teacher are the benefits of having a link with a special / mainstream school? (ie operational reasons)
  • How do you see the link benefiting your learners? Have they developed new knowledge? Skills? Has it impacted on their values?
  • How have you needed to adapt the resources, lesson plans and activities?
  • Can you provide some examples of children’s work? Photos?
  • What have been the highlights of the work so far?
  • What have been the challenges of the work so far?
  • How do you see the link developing in the future?


This case study will be suitable for sharing with other areas active in the Linking Network programme wishing to work with special schools. Additionally it will provide insight to our work for HEC Global Learning Centre and The Linking Network management committee members and funders.

Students from Beatrice Tate School practicing asking questions of unfamiliar people, in readiness for meeting their linked partner students.

Case study 1:

Beatrice Tate School class linked with Morpeth Secondary School special needs class

Beatrice Tate School is a secondary special school in Tower Hamlets for pupils with severe learning difficulties and profound and multiple learning difficulties. Beatrice Tate School is a purpose-built day school for pupils aged 11-19 whose educational needs cannot adequately be met in mainstream schools. The school was built in 2013 and provides a high quality learning environment for 92 pupils, all of whom have a Statement of Special Educational Need and an Education, Health and Care Plan. The school offers all pupils a broad balanced and differentiated curriculum with full entitlement to the National Curriculum. Beatrice Tate School believes the curriculum should help pupils make sense of the world and operate more effectively within it so that, as individuals, they become more contributing and valued members of society. It also respects their adolescent and young person status, reflects and celebrates their multi-cultural diversity and aims to extend learners range of experiences. The overall aim is that the school’s pupils become more contributing and valued members of society through:

  • providing opportunities for all pupils to learn and to achieve
  • promoting pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development
  • preparing all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life


The school was last inspected by Ofsted in April 2016 and the school continues to be outstanding.

The leadership team has maintained the outstanding quality of education in the school since the last inspection. The school continues to meet the needs of pupils who have a wide range of severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties.”

Beatrice Tate School got involved in Tower Hamlets Linking Project in order to provide better opportunities for the students and to create more links with the community. The school is based in the community where most of the students live and not many students have the chance to go out and about or be taken out over the weekend. The students involved in the link come from Year 10 and 11 (Key Stage 4) and beyond (17 – 19 years old).

There have been three class teachers from Beatrice Tate School actively involved in the training and class activities of the Tower Hamlets Linking Project this year. One of the teachers explained the work to have been an extremely positive experience for her learners. She can see that all her students were really excited to meet their peers from another school and excited to go out into the community, to places where usually they might not have the chance to go otherwise. It was clear that the students’ awareness of their own community increased, as well as their awareness of their own school. The students were very proud to say they were from Beatrice Tate School and to engage in chatting about what is available in their community.

Personal booklets were produced by each student and exchanged at the outset of the project. Everyday similarities and differences were explored in this way, for example, liking or disliking snakes, or all liking ice-cream or supporting a particular football team. This process was kept quite simple and light to begin with and it helps build commonality and an acceptance that not everyone is the same.


Beatrice Tate School students preparing their personal booklets.

The work then moved on to a focus of Life Skills, part of the curriculum in special schools. A very important part of life skills is to know what is available in the community, to have links to people sharing the same community and meeting new people, including students from other schools. Learning to communicate with unfamiliar people is a key focus at the later stages of special needs education. The starting point for developing communication skills is communicating with unfamiliar people within the school. Tower Hamlets Linking Project provided real life experiences to take this learning to the next stage: going out and learning to communicate and chat with others. During the Neutral Venue visit to Rich Mix Beatrice Tate students met with Morpeth School students for the first time and this afforded the opportunity to chat and communicate with people neither set of students knew beforehand.

Over the time span of the project the students have developed their knowledge of communicating with others dramatically. Lots of practice and scaffolding went into making this happen. Role play of things that they might want to say and ask meant that the students were well prepared when a real life opportunity was provided through the Tower Hamlets Linking Project. This process was immensely helpful ‘because it is one thing to prepare in the class and practice, and another thing to actually go and do it’. Natascia was hugely impressed because all of the students did really well and felt ready to meet new people, even those who usually feel quite shy. The work that was done in preparation had real life application through the project. ‘It was a joy to see the students so proud of their work and their progress’, she commented.


Role play: meeting new people

Engaging with similarities and differences was a chance to develop skills to understand and appreciate diversity. It was very important to the Beatrice Tate School teachers that the partner school was a secondary school (Key Stage 4). They feel that being linked with a primary school would have been highly problematic. One of the underpinning principles at Beatrice Tate School is to respect the adolescence and young person status of their pupils. ‘Although our students have severe needs and disabilities they are still teenagers. We like to treat them as teenagers and they like to be treated as teenagers too!’

A sense of equality between the Beatrice Tate School students and Morpeth School’s special need class was created through the preparation work in both schools. This centered on how to behave when meeting unfamiliar people. Stress was placed on living in the same community, even though the students attend different schools. That sense of belonging to one Tower Hamlets was used to build commonality, respect and cohesiveness.

Several exchanges of work have taken place between the students. The Linking Network classroom resources were adapted to work with the special school students, where appropriate. However, most students at Beatrice Tate School do not write but use communicating print, where words have pictures attached to each word. The personal booklets used communicating print to support writing and reading. The teachers used the general ideas from Linking Network classroom resources and drew out activities that were suitable for their students.

When the students met for the second time the teachers were amazed at how much they remembered of each other. Although not all names were remembered, it was impressive that facts and anecdotes about each other were remembered well. The impact of the work on the students was highly notable.

The highlights of the work so far have been visiting Morpeth School and making the personal booklets for the partner school students. Exchanging the work was exciting for the students and the teachers too. Having fun together, with new friends from different walks of life, has been a memorable experience. The second meeting in a park consisted of playing sports together and chatting and it was, above all, really good fun.


Meeting up at Meath Gardens and having fun.

The challenge came at the beginning of the project and was organizing the meetings against a demanding secondary school timetable and the pressures of school life. A great deal of determination, dedication and flexibility has led to successes in finding time to meet. This was aided by the understanding of the Beatrice Tate School teacher having experience of working at a mainstream school previously herself.

The plan for the future is to continue the work next year and build on the linking relationship. One idea under consideration is to have a day per term dedicated to Tower Hamlets Linking Project and this would be planned and timetabled from the beginning of the school year. The focus of these encounters could be joint learning, possibly in each others’ classrooms. These meetings would be kept fun and enjoyable, because once the work gets too academic this might have the undesirable effect of focusing everyone on the differences and could become counter-productive.

Beatrice Tate School would like to use more places in the community, such as the library, local park, youth centre, college or cinema complex. This is an important consideration both in terms of widening the Beatrice Tate student’s horizons and because, as special needs students, the learners from both schools are bound to cross each other’s paths in the future. ‘It’s very good that they meet now and will recognize each other when they encounter new situations later on.’

Additionally, not all parents are able to take the students out into the community and through this work the students would be able to get to know community facilities, such as the parks, libraries and other public spaces. The hope is that with positive experiences of community spaces the young people themselves will ask to be taken again by parents, carers or be- frienders. In terms of preparation for positive futures it is essential that young people with special needs know their communities and have positive experiences of public spaces. ‘Even better would be if staff remember our young people when they go again’.

Case Study 2:

Phoenix School Satellite Class at Marner Primary

Phoenix Primary and Secondary School is a special school in Tower Hamlets, London. It serves children between 3 and 19 years with severe language and communication difficulties whose needs lie within the autistic spectrum. Phoenix School offers a rich and stimulating curriculum and a caring yet purposeful atmosphere with a balance of focus between welfare and achievement for all.

Phoenix School continues to be judged as Outstanding (Nov 2018). It is a UNICEF Rights Respecting School, implementing the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child and ensuring that pupils are taught about their rights. The school’s mission statement is ‘to offer a positive, life enhancing education, providing opportunities for the development of each individual potential towards a fulfilling adult life’.

Phoenix School operates a satellite model, working in partnership with Marner Primary and Bow School (secondary). The satellite model provides support for children with special educational needs in a mainstream setting. Children are chosen for the satellite depending on their ability to mix with their peers socially and not necessarily needing all of the sensory opportunities offered on the main site. Through supported inclusion learners have the chance to work on their social and interaction skills whilst being supported with their needs related to autism in the mainstream environment.

In the primary satellite pupils follow a broad curriculum based around the National Curriculum for core subjects and the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) for other foundation subjects. The IPC is a comprehensive, thematic, creative curriculum followed by Marner Primary which is modified for the needs of the satellite pupils. The curriculum is designed in such a way to maximise social interaction and inclusion opportunities where appropriate with mainstream pupils.

The Year 3 and 4 children in the primary satellite have been involved in the Tower Hamlets Linking Project over the 2018 / 2019 school year. There are eight pupils in the class and these pupils have been given a ‘link buddy’ from the mainstream Y3 Marner Primary class. This has proven a highly successful approach and the ease of engaging with pupils on the same physical site has been a great advantage. This has enabled the children to get together regularly in the classroom as well as continue their friendships in the playground.

A concentrated focus was to strengthen the relationships that Phoenix School pupils and staff have in the satellite setting. The Phoenix School co-ordinator teacher,  is in her first year teaching at the satellite and felt at the beginning of the year that the class seemed a little bit isolated from the rest of the school. Participating in the Tower Hamlets Linking Project presented a good structure for the satellite pupils to get to know the pupils in their new school setting. Through this project they were able to make friends outside the classroom and to build relationships with those friends that are built on respect and trust.

The co-ordinator teacher, in particular, has her own understanding that the benefits of the link lie with the children having a buddy in their link class. This buddying process has extended to the staff too and this has been really useful as someone new to the setting. Through her link teacher, she got to know other Marner Primary staff very quickly – she has been invited to events and trips, ‘it’s a very inclusive setting and the project has helped in getting to know the other teachers’.

For the pupils a main skill focus for this project was developing communication. ‘Before the link when they went to the playground the satellite class really kept to themselves.’  Over time the children have become more confident in talking to other children in the playground – not just their buddies but friends of their buddies too. They are now taking part in games and conversations in bigger groups. This is not only building communication skills but building confidence too. The class teacher has witnessed her pupils seeking out their buddies and starting to initiate games or conversations. As the year has gone by she has seen a BIG difference in her pupils – ‘they go out into the playground, recognise a lot more people, are more confident in approaching others and it now feels like they belong, as part of the school.’ There has been an impact on the values of the learners from both schools. ‘Definitely, our pupils are more respected as the Marner Primary pupils are more aware of their needs. They are very caring.’


Eid party Eating lunch Eating lunch Easter crafts with our link buddies

When taking part in activities with the mainstream class, the SEN Teaching Assistants have been able to step back, because their buddies help them out in the way the Teaching Assistants would have. Equality between the children has not been an issue as the children at Marner are very caring and the tone set by Marner Primary teachers inculcates equality. This is underpinned by the UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools work. Furthermore, being involved in every aspect of school life at Marner Primary also underlines this feeling of equality between the children.

The Linking Network resources have been used with adaptations. Saiyara added visual aids and the Marner Primary class have used these versions too, so the activities flowed and all the children were doing the same thing. By taking this approach, when the work is displayed on the wall the children’s work is presented as one. The visuals and images make the activities more concrete for everyone. ‘The Marner Primary pupils have been so considerate and given the Phoenix School pupils time and space to take part in the activities, that they may have completed quicker by themselves.’ Both the Phoenix School teachers and the Marner Primary teachers consider these encounters to be a chance to develop great skills for life. It’s important that the mainstream pupils have the chance to learn to be more patient and to allow for differences in ability and styles.

A major focus of the curriculum work this year has been the book Wonder by RJ Palacio. Both linked classes used this book to look at similarities and differences, in ourselves and others. The pupils created portraits of characters featured in the story and these are planned to be displayed at Marner, with work from pupils in both classes displayed together. ‘The Phoenix School pupils have really enjoyed the opportunity to go into 3B, the children have been very welcoming, there are nice workstations for our children and the trips have been fantastic.’

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a severe facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, Auggie wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past his extraordinary face.

Wonder begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include the perspectives of his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These voices converge to portray a community as it struggles with differences, and challenges readers, both young and old, to wonder about the true nature of empathy, compassion, acceptance, friendship, and—ultimately—kindness.

One very important development over the linking year was the establishment of a girls group. In the Phoenix School class there was only one girl, who felt quite isolated, so a girls group was established to enable her to make some girl friends at school. The girls group takes place every Weds lunchtime and girls from Marner Primary class 3B, including girls who are not buddies but want to be more involved, take part. The teachers have noticed positive changes in this pupil since the group started. She has learnt the other girls’ names and it has been very nice to see her interacting with other girls in the club and the playground.

Summaya braiding a buddy’s hair during girls group

One of the final activities for the year is the planned visit for the buddies to the main site at Phoenix School to see the sensory equipment. ‘The children are very excited about this – both to host the visit and to make the visit.’

In light of this, future plans include the idea to add a second Marner Primary buddy to each pairing; now the Phoenix School pupils are feeling more confident and have secured communication skills. ‘The success they’ve had this year has given them the confidence to build on.’

Plans for the future also include widening the participation of learners in both schools by including the new Y5 /6, as well as continuing the work with the new Year 3 in the next school year. Recently at lunch time the Marner Primary buddies were sitting with the Phoenix School children and some of the Year 5 / 6 children asked if they were going to have a buddy next year. The possibilities for widening participation in the links are being initiated by and are proving popular with the children themselves.

This has been a great year to begin socialising and working on communication skills. Next year will be about more class based activities and digging deeper into differences and talking about these,’  class teacher.

Case Study 3:

Marner Primary School linked with special school satellite class

Marner Primary School is a large three-form entry primary school in Tower Hamlets, East London. The school serves a diverse community and places importance on ensuring the children enjoy coming to school. Marner Primary School believes in working together to enable all children to become resilient, lifelong thinkers and learners with the vision and goals of Respect, Happiness, Growth, Hope and Motivation. The school engages in the UNICEF Rights respecting Schools Award, follows the International Primary Curriculum and many global learning initiatives. Marner Primary hosts the primary Phoenix School satellite classes. Ofsted rate the school as continuing to be good.

The school leadership at Marner Primary got involved in the Tower Hamlets Linking Project with the aim of strengthening relationships between Marner Primary and Phoenix School. One way of strengthening this relationship is through the satellite classes. The Phoenix School primary satellite classes are based at Marner Primary, housed in the same building. Although the satellite classes were physically present on the same site, they felt remote to Marner Primary staff and children. Creating this stronger connection was the main motivation for being part of a bigger project.

This strategy has worked well. For this first year of linking the lower junior satellite class has been involved. However, due to the successes of the work, there are now plans to extend this work to the upper junior satellite class to link with Yr 5 and Yr 6 of Marner Primary next year.

The teachers at Marner Primary have gained from the closer relationship, which has in turn also benefitted the pupils, particularly those with special needs. The co-ordinator for the Tower Hamlets Linking Project,   says that through the work with the special needs teachers and discussions about the nature of autism with them, she has gained a better insight into the needs of an autistic boy in her class.

The Marner Primary pupils have found the process of coming into contact with other children they otherwise would not a great learning experience. The opportunity to talk and get to know each other has allowed a process to take place that has resulted in the Phoenix School pupils belonging in the full school setting. Connecting to others with different background to themselves has afforded the opportunity for Marner Primary pupils to understand and care about others with different needs. ‘This has impacted on the values of the Marner Primary children enabling them to value difference and perceive different needs kindly.’ Previously to this work the class tended to treat the boy with special needs in their class like he was much younger than them. Through the experience of the project the children now tend to treat him as an equal, on the same level as themselves. ‘Honestly, it’s been a real change.’

First get-together at Rich Mix, Neutral Venue Visit

Recently the satellite classes were included in a sports day and ‘it was wonderful’. There are now many more connections on lots of levels between the Phoenix School satellite classes and Marner Primary.

The Linking Network resources were used by Marner Primary for the ‘getting to know you’ stage of the project and then they jointly planned with the Phoenix School teacher to work on the book, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This was a very pertinent book to explore an ethical relationship to difference and unpack the issues in a safe way. A display of work from both classes is on display in Marner Primary School currently.

The highlight of the work so far has been seeing the children interact during breaks and lunch- time. ‘All the children from class 3B and all the satellite class children play together and engage with each other so naturally. The children often seek out their buddies and it’s really lovely to see.’


Having a chat and playing rock, paper, scissors during an outing.

The girls group has proven very popular with the Marner Primary girls. ‘It’s become like a craze, where every girl wants to go to this club. They enjoy spending time with Summaya.’  The conversations in the club are invaluable for cementing relationships and the fact the girls are seeking this out themselves, in their own time, underlines the importance of the connections.

The only challenges faced have been the logistics of taking a group from 3B to visit Phoenix. Many less challenges have been faced than in previous similar linking work, mainly aided by the shared site.

Conclusions and Findings

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together’ Vincent Van Gogh

This has been a very successful trial that provides a number of learning points and replicable features for other contexts. The impact on teachers’ and pupils’ daily lives of the small changes brought about by the project cannot be under-estimated. Inclusion and a sense of belonging form the centre-point of our work, both for HEC Global Learning Centre and The Linking Network. By providing a project framework that can facilitate spaces where special need pupils are included has afforded opportunities for growth for all.

Our children share the locality they inhabit. Linking has brought them into a space that uncovers the wealth of intangible diversity within this locality– the diversity of world views, of multiple solutions to a problem, of forms of self-expression.’

Alia Al Zougbi, Head of HEC Global Learning Centre

The following reflections and development have arisen as a result of this work:

  • Replicable models

Many secondary schools have special needs classes and this provides a good starting point for engagement. Case Study 1 explores the link between a special school class and a special needs class in a secondary school. The opportunities provided by the project meant that both sets of students were able to encounter previously unknown people and get to know others beyond their own setting. The relative security of this approach, special needs students linked to special needs students, provides a meaningful and fruitful way to begin the linking journey. It may provide the platform, with increased skills and confidence, to scaffold learners and their teachers into further linking activity.

  • Development of Life Skills focus

A key element of the special school curriculum is developing Life Skills. These range from daily living skills through to community involvement and communication skills. The socially related skills such as talking to unknown people and knowing the facilities and opportunities in the local community offer many overlaps with linking activities. Case Study 1 shows how the students were able to put their hard practiced skills, developed through role play, discussions and class activities, to real life purpose through the link. As their teacher Natascia Maita says: ‘it is one thing to prepare in the class and practice, and another thing to actually go and do it’. Linking offers meaningful engagement with real people, living real lives, in real places.

  • Appreciation of diversity

For many of the children involved in the practices outlined in this document’s case studies natural meetings are simply not going to happen without planned intervention. At HEC Global Learning Centre, for many years, we have spoken of the ‘bubbles’ children are growing up in – localised bubbles with little or no opportunity to experience other ways of thinking and being. Reflecting on the hate crime statistic that prompted HEC Global Learning Centre’s desire to engage more with special needs learners, the Tower Hamlets Linking Project has afforded opportunities to widen horizons and take children beyond their daily lives and usual comfort zones. Relationships beyond their usual friendship groups are being formed and the learners are experiencing engagement with difference in a safe environment, where their curiosity is welcomed and encouraged. In Case Studies 2 and 3 the mainstream class and special needs class studied the book Wonder together and produced joint work. This book examines a wide range of reactions to and perceptions of disability. This work has involved some deep thinking for children as young as 7 years old, and thinking about values and how to treat others is reflected in the behaviour of the children. ‘‘This has impacted on the values of the Marner Primary children enabling them to value difference and perceive different needs kindly.’ and ‘Honestly, it’s been a real change.’

  • Support of individual children

In Case Study 2 the impact of the Tower Hamlets Linking Project work for the only girl in the special needs class has been immense. Up until the linking project she only had the opportunity to mix with boys in her class and, compounded by her special needs regarding communication, this must have been very isolating for her. Every child deserves the opportunity to mix with both girls and boys, in a natural way. The intervention of her teacher was to set up a girls group and make this attractive to the mainstream girls in 3B. This intervention has worked very well indeed, to the extent ‘it has become a craze’ and girls from 3B who are not involved as buddies have the opportunity to have this wider involvement. This example of inclusivity is heart-warming and life-changing.

  • Organisational changes

As part of the opening up of HEC Global Learning Centre services to special needs schools as an organisation and as individual staff members we have considered what skills we need to develop or build upon.  Triny Diaz, the Project Co-ordinator at HEC Global Learning Centre has made the following commitment:

I had the opportunity to be part of the Neutral Venue Visits for the Tower Hamlets Linking Project. During the sessions, I had the chance to interact with students of all abilities. Some of them used Makaton to communicate. Currently, the team at HEC Global learning Centre lacks this knowledge, and it would be super important for us to have it, as it would enable us to have successful interactions with students that are not able to use spoken work to communicate.

As we are part of Tower Hamlets Council, we researched the resources available in-house and we found out that the Language and Communication Team at Support for Learning Service offers Singalong training. Singalong is similar to Makaton in many ways, but Signalong has more useful curriculum words, focuses on developing communication skills and enables users to access vocabulary according to need. Based on that, I will be attending training in the Autumn term 2019.

 Linda Barker, Associate


Linda Barker, Consultant to HEC    lindabarker2010@live.co.uk 

Alia Al Zougbi, Head of HEC Global Learning, alia.alzougbi@towerhamlets.gov.uk