A Special School?

One of the biggest days in a parents life is when they hand there child into the care of the school where he or she is going to be educated. When that child has a disability of any kind the feeling of trepidation is heightened for the parents.

Today, the vast majority of children who are like me ,full time wheelchair users, will be educated with their able bodied friends and hopefully will be able to flourish in the same way. In fact, thanks to the disability discrimination legislation passed in the UK, it is now illegal for a disabled pupil not to be treated in the same way as an able bodied one and if as parents you feel this is happening approach the school to start to rectify things and if you’re not successful move to local councillor and even MP to get what you deserve. We can only hope that the years of austerity have not too greatly reduced the schools ability to do this.

When I headed for my first day at school in 1965 things were very different.

My parents wanted me to be treated like any other child. They asked to see the head teacher at the local primary school, Manod Primary. They discussed whether they felt that he thought I could cope physically in the school. Believe it or not, as a 5 year old in 1965 I had not been issued with a wheelchair of my own. So had to be carried there. I then had to crawl around in the classroom and get on and off chairs by my desk. I enjoyed the lessons. My teacher, Miss Davies, was impressed that I could tell the time before starting school and my reading she said was near the top of the class. Like nearly all in my class I was bi lingual.

My parents believed that a child with a disability had to make the most of education and push themselves forward to avoid them being ignored. It’s sad to see that children with any difference from the norm have to make sure they work harder than others just to get recognition. They were aware even then that what ever talent you had needed to be made the most of as people would not expect you to achieve what able bodied counterparts could. However unfair that was.

By the the end of that first year at Manod Primary it was obvious that the lack of a wheelchair and the school building were causing me physical problems. I kept getting sores and splinters in my legs as I had poor feeling in them. My parents had to try and change things. They went to see the head teacher and between them they agreed that my physical needs were not being met at the school. He found it frustrating as my report was good. He asked my parents if they had heard of a new school that had opened in 1962 at Llandudno for children with physical disabilities to cover the 6 counties of North Wales and the parts of Cheshire which bordered Wales along with I pupil from Shrewsbury. It was called Ysgol Gogarth. They said they hadn’t.

Mr Lewis made enquires and was told that there would be a place available in September. Bizarrely, it was created by another pupil from Blaenau Ffestiniog Meryl Jones leaving the school after reaching school leaving age, her Brother Alun was in the senior school at Gogarth when I started my first day.

A few days later my parents received a letter from Mr Nefydd Davies, the head teacher, asking us to visit the school as a family to see if we felt it would be good for me. So, we travelled to Craig y don, Llandudno in Dad’s green Hillman Imp. Thanks to that car I was to become obsessed with cars and driving. In fact, the first thing I used to ask everyone that visited our home was, ‘what car do you drive’.

When we got there they let me use one of the schools spare wheelchairs and the feeling of freedom it gave me is something I still remember to this day. That, and the horrible smell of floor polish they used on the schools corridors. The electric floor polisher which the school care taker, Mr Williams, used was like something out of Dr Who. It’s strange what makes an impression an a child at the age of 6.

In September, along with my parents, I made my way to Ysgol Gogarth to start my school days proper. Through the local physio department in Blaenau I had been issued with a manual wheelchair. Nearly all the pupils in wheelchairs had a blue one. There were some who used an electric one as they couldn’t push a manual. Most electric wheelchair users lived with a condition called muscular dystrophy.

After saying goodbye to my parents until the following Friday afternoon I made my way to my class. I have learnt in the time that has passed that my Mum cried most of the way home. She felt, like many others, that sending a child with a disability to a boarding school at such a young age is hard.

I was taught in class 1 by Miss Pritchard. She would come back into my life years later in a way she or I never expected. She was a talented singer and was part of the choir which sang at the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969. I remember all of us going to watch it in the school hall.  Like most of the teachers at Ysgol Gogarth back then she spoke Welsh. Luckily, I settled in quickly. Made some friends and tried to get involved in all that I could. The school was a boarding school with 4 dormitories. Junior Mixed, Junior Boys, Senior Girls, Senior Boys and Senior Girls. The schools dormitories were two stories reached by either stairs for children who could walk (known to wheelchair users like me as ‘Walkers’ or a lift which was situated in the middle of the the dormitory block.

In any boarding school a vital part is played by the care staff. In my time at Ysgol Gogarth the care staff were referred to as ‘House Parents’.

The ones looking after the Juniors like me were run by a lady from the next village to Blaenau called Dolwyddelan. Her name was Miss Jennifer Jones. She was known to all as Miss Jen. Those looking after the senior pupils were run by a man called Mr Lowe.

During my time as a junior two things seemed to be happening to me more than anything else. The Care staff were trying to get my bladder under control and the physio’s were trying to get me into calipers to walk with crutches. The first problem embarrassed me no end and several things were attempted to stop my having accidents due to my bladder weakness. Whilst the need for me to walk seemed pointless as I could get around so much quicker in my wheelchair.

It was a time of ‘Special Schools’ giving an education which concentrated far too much on supposed life skills and not enough on the academic skills of the pupils. Obviously, those in high places didn’t think much of the academic ability of the children who were born with a physical and not mental disability. Because of this mindset no provision was deemed necessary and so many children were not pushed in the way able bodied children in main stream schools were as normal.

Thankfully towards the end of my time at Gogarth they employed a graduate teacher, the late Yvonne Hughes, to test whether two of the pupils, myself and a boy from Hope near Wrexham called Stephen Evans could pass a CSE in English. Which we both did. The following year I passed an O level in English language and a CSE at (Grade1) in English Literature.

I often wonder what would have happened if the older pupils at Gogarth could have attended John Brights school in Llandudno as the pupils at our sister school, Erw’r Delyn, did at St Cyrus Comprehensive in Penarth. I would like to believe that given the same curriculum we would have taken the chances given to our able bodied friends with both hands. I have always believed that a person who lives with a disability has the mindset that nothing is going to stand in their way. As Mr Rhapps once told a journalist, ‘ If you want any of my children to do something, tell them they can’t.

After two or three years a new headteacher was appointed at Gogarth, Tudor Rhapps. He was from Pontypridd and looked like the late British comic actor Jimmy Edwards. He was also at Teacher Training College in Bangor with the actor Windsor Davies with who he remained friends. He had been in charge of hospital school in Heswall before coming to Gogarth. He was a talented pianist and played the organ too in a local church. When he was appointed it proved disappointing for the then Deputy Will Parri Williams. It was the policy at the school not to promote from within. He was to leave when a headship at another special school in Bangor, Treborth became available. He was a popular teacher. Apart from the lessons he taught he had one project which was close to his heart. He managed to get some raise beds built so that the older pupils could learn about gardening. I enjoyed it very much and now as I am nearing 60 I am tempted to see if the council will let me build one in my back garden.

There is one time of year, Halloween where I am reminded of Will Parri Williams. Every year he would disappear at the end of the school day and return in the evening dressed as a witch in full costume and make up. He used to scary the life out of me when I was a young lad.

As you can see by the way I have titled this post I am far from sure how special our school was. I enjoyed my school life. Made friends, thanks to social media, who I am still in touch with. Not forgetting I got a wife from having been a pupil there too. I am definitely the stubborn, independent person I am today because of Gogarth. But if my academic life at Ysgol Gogarth had been more rounded then I think my life would have been far more like that of my able bodied friends.

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