The Avenue School

PUBLISHED: 17:16 16 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:19 20 February 2013

Our history is really part of our future. We can't go forward without remembering how we got this far. The Avenue School has been a part of the Reading community for the last hundred years, and reading through log books and records, and...

Our history is really part of our future. We can't go forward without remembering how we got this far. The Avenue School has been a part of the Reading community for the last hundred years, and reading through log books and records, and seeing old photographs, some dating to the beginning of the 20th century brings home just how many pupils have been through the school and how many families must have been affected by the work done here.

The very first log book of the school makes fascinating reading and gives a picture of great interest and concern for, what were then described as handicapped, but now we would consider disabled, children by the Reading School Board. The Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act of 1899 required local authorities to make provision for the education of these children, and Reading responded to this directive by opening a special class at the Oxford Road School on September 2nd, 1901. On that first morning ten children were admitted to the class, all having been previously examined and passed as 'fit' and then labelled "mentally defective". The terminology used throughout records from the early part of the twentieth century we now find offensive, but the opening of this provision was in its day very progressive. The log book indicates that the school was opened for the training and education of physically and mentally defective children. At the end of that first week the teacher wrote a brief report stating that "nothing special has occurred during the week". Perhaps this is the only week in the long history of the school that such an entry has been possible.

The school received excellent reports and it would seem was never without visitors, even in those early days. It soon became obvious that a second class was necessary and recommendations from the Inspectorate were that a larger school be built. Plans were drawn up for the building of a school in the south facing open fields to the south of the town, provision being made for six classes. This new school opened in July 1909.

The following year recommendations were made that the school should be enlarged to include children suffering from consumption. Two large wooden buildings were erected on the south side of the school, the sunniest side of each being constructed entirely of double doors that could be opened right out. On June 9th, 1911 that additional part of the school opened for twelve pupils. The school grew rapidly and by July 1912, the then called Whitley Special School, had 110 pupils, and by the beginning of First World War the number had risen to 180.

Reading was well to the forefront in providing education for those children unfortunate enough to be unable to follow a course in ordinary school. In less than 20 years from the humble beginnings as a single class attached to a mainstream school, had developed a school of unusual organisation which provided for all disabled and sick pupils, and slow learners.

The headmistress and staff had none of the writings and research findings which are available today to guide them. They were undoubtedly people with tremendous instinctive feelings for the wants and needs of these children and it is interesting to compare some of the early timetables of that time with today's. There was obvious recognition that the pupils must have a programme quite different from that of a mainstream school, designed to enable them to progress as far as they were able with academic work, and at the same time to give them many interests and skills in the practical subjects. Through this approach they would help the children raise self esteem and pride in their achievements. Practical activities included many forms of craft work, woodwork and cobbling for the boys, needlework and laundry for the girls, and gardening for both sexes.

Many children on arrival at school in the morning were provided with breakfast, and every child had dinner at school, the cost being twopence per head, and in the case of the very poor it was provided free.

The children with consumption had a much longer day than the other pupils, as they had compulsory rest from 12.30 p.m. until 2.15 p.m., followed by a dose of cod-liver oil and malt, then school until 4.30 p.m. when tea was served before they went home. These pupils must have been very poorly as there is often reference in old records to their being unable to bear the strain of continued study and if necessary they could 'doze off' in class. The complex mix of pupils' disabilities and difficulties has continued right through to the present day, although we no longer have children with consumption, and pupils do not doze off (well not actually!).

The public's perception of children with any disability or difficulty at the beginning of the 20th century wasn't favourable, and there was a certain stigma attached to attending the "Whitley Special School". In about 1954 the name was changed to "The Avenue School" and in every way knowledge of the school, its staff, children, work and activities were made known as widely as possible.

In 1957 pressure for places in the school required an extension to be built and, as the original brick building was surrounded on three sides by private gardens and the road, it was necessary to erect a separate new building. For this purpose an old mansion called Whitley Rise was demolished and in its place a state of the art purpose-built facility was erected. In 1967 a further block of classrooms was erected on site. Still in 2007 the 1967, 1957 and 1909 buildings are being used for classrooms.

In the 1950s the number of delicate children in the school rapidly declined from two classes of almost 30 children each, to about 20 pupils in all. The cause for this rapid improve¬ment in health and consequent decline in the numbers of children in this category is almost certainly the result of the development after the war of the health service, under which welfare clinics were built in considerable numbers with health visitors working from them in the homes. Poliomyelitis had been defeated, meningitis was under control, the very poor frail type of child, the child suffering from tubercular infection almost disappeared and the few delicate children remaining were almost entirely asthmatics or children with bronchial difficulties. The fresh air of the gardens gave untold benefit to these pupils. Throughout the years the population of delicate children, disabled children and slow learners has fluctuated but the school was at full capacity right through the century. More recently the improved techniques in surgery and medical procedures mean that many children are surviving traumatic births, and accidents, and the growth in the numbers of these children has been evident in school. The population has again changed recently, with many pupils who have moderate learning difficulties being placed back into mainstream schools, and the increase in our population of pupils on the Autistic Spectrum.

The school currently (2008) houses around 90 pupils, and approximately the same number of staff! The staff is made up of teachers, classroom assistants, nurses, physiotherapists, specialists in hearing impairment and visual impairment, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, cooks, lunchtime controllers, caretakers and administration staff.

Pupils range in age from 2 to 19 years, and follow the National Curriculum. They make regular trips to theatres, museums, and parks, and enjoy PGL holidays in Devon or South Wales. Pupils never cease to make us proud, giving their all in theatrical performances to parents, other schools and dignitaries, or taking part in and very often winning sporting events. Staff are overjoyed to see the number of pupils who are now leaving school to take up employment, or to follow a course at college, and those who return to visit and tell us how they miss the school and how they loved it.

From the very first days the grounds and garden have played a very important part of school life. The gardens which once belonged to the old Whitley Rise Mansion are fairly extensive and have been developed by dedicated staff and the children over the century. There has been much satisfaction from the creative enjoyment of turning open land into well laid—out gardens, changing with trends, interests and capabilities over the century. Fruit, vegetables greenhouses, polytunnels, trails, woodland walks, have all had their moment, at least once. Renewed vigour and interest in the garden in 2004 resulted in the school winning the Dorothy Morley Conversation Award, and this award again in 2006. It received Gold in the 2005 Reading in Bloom category for Schools, and a Pride of Reading award, and in 2006 and 2007 the gardens again won Reading in Bloom Gold awards for schools. Also in 2007 the gardens were awarded the Britain in Bloom Regional Award for Best School Involvement.

The school currently holds a number of other accolades including Investors in People, the Quality Mark from the Basic Skills Agency for both Primary and Secondary Education, the Inclusion Quality Mark, is an Approved Centre for General Assessment Qualifications, and an Approved Centre for Vocational Qualifications, is a Widgit Centre, has Performing Arts Status, has The Gold Arts Mark and is applying to have the International Schools' Award. Month the school was thrilled to hear that it had been assessed by Ofsted as an 'Outstanding' school.

Nothing stands in the way of progress, and no one at the school would want it to, however, it was with some sadness that towards the end of the millennium it was realised that the school on its current site was no longer a viable proposition. The buildings have been repaired and patched many times over the century. The grounds are sloping and therefore we have buildings with stairs and steps, making some classrooms completely inaccessible to some pupils. In general, facilities need updating. The cost of a project to bring this site and buildings to a modern, acceptable level was carefully assessed alongside the complete relocation of the school to a new site and state of the art building. We are now at the stage that educators must have found themselves in at the beginning of the 20th century, we need to move to progress.

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