A very special SEN Christmas

Cherryl Drabble

Cherryl Drabble is assistant headteacher at Highfurlong School, an Outstanding-rated special needs school in Blackpool. She is the author of the book Supporting Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Bloomsbury Education), and has a Masters in Inclusion/SEND. Cherryl also holds the roles of CPD leader, initial teacher trainer, NQT mentor and assessment team leader.

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Image credit: Highfurlong School. Image credit: Highfurlong School.

Christmas for our very special children has to be the most magical time that we can possibly make it. Some of our children are so poorly that they may not be able to celebrate when Christmas day finally dawns. In other families, parents and carers may be so tired from the constant regime of looking after their profoundly poorly children that they may not have enough energy left to celebrate at home. At Highfurlong we make it our mission to create a party atmosphere for all our children, and ensure that everyone has a taste of a perfect Christmas day.

The chosen day begins bright and early, and a magnificent volunteer-team of seasonally clad teaching assistants arrives in school by 7am, ready to transform the school hall into a party room. The tree is brightly lit in the corner, and the sound of Christmas music - both carols “Our cook has extra helpers for the occasion.”and pop - fills the air as the jolly band of workers begin their transformation. Every single child and every single member of staff will be joining this Christmas party. This includes the headteacher, the chair of governors, all the support staff, nursing and office staff. It is a complete family affair. Tables and chairs are set out, specialised cutlery and crockery, Christmas crackers, party poppers, party hats, decorated napkins and placemats are set ready for children and their support staff to have their festive dinner.

Over in the kitchen, our cook has extra helpers for the occasion. For this day only she is cooking for all the children, as well as an extra fifty members of staff. The delicious aromas emanating from that kitchen are enough to make your stomach do somersaults in anticipation! As the morning goes on the preparations continue. Seating everyone in the hall is a logistical nightmare. There is no hierarchy amongst the staff that day - everyone is equal. All members of staff are assigned a role. They are either feeding children who need help, facilitating gastro feeds, serving meals or waiting on tables. They also join the children and eat their own lunch as the opportunity arises.

At midday, the Christmas dinner is ready. The children are taken to the hall and this is the moment we have all been waiting for. ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ blares out from the sound system and signals the start of a very special hour. When you see the smiles on the children’s faces, when you hear the absolute squeals of delight when they see the Christmas tree and all the beautifully decorated tables all laid out, you come to realise why the staff work so hard. It’s for the children. No amount of money can buy the joy we receive from those children in that moment. No one is excluded from this lunch. Children with sensory issues will be strategically placed as far as away from the noise and hustle and bustle as possible and given ear defenders. They will have their familiar toys and their favourite TAs with them to ensure they enjoy their lunch. We are always fully inclusive as a school, Christmas day is no different.

Once the golden roast potatoes, the savoury stuffing and the delicious turkey has all disappeared, a quiet hush comes over the room. The children are encouraged to listen carefully. You can see them straining their ears to identify the noise: the sound of sleigh bells. One of the more vocal youngsters shouts “Santa’s coming!” and there is an immediate hullaballoo from the rest of the children! Excitement like you’ve never “Excitement like you’ve never witnessed travels around the school hall.”witnessed travels around that school hall as they eagerly await the man in the red coat with white fur. He makes the loudest footsteps as he comes down the corridor and he walks the slowest steps in order to increase the anticipation. By the time he enters the hall some of our children can hardly contain themselves, such is their absolute delight! Santa has indeed arrived. He is carrying a box of goodies for all the children and young people. He travels the room shaking the hands of each one or whispering in their ear to let them know that every one of them is special to him. Good old Santa (otherwise known as Mr. Tinkler, our site supervisor).

To finish off the meal, our headteacher presents the cook and her assistants with a large box of chocolates for all their hard work. Some of our TAs kindly offer to help with the washing up, as the Christmas spirit has affected us all. The children can’t wait to join in with three cheers in thanks for their lovely Christmas dinner.

Further down the corridor, one of our super talented TAs has used a computer program to convert our interactive sensory room into Santa’s grotto. Once again the children are beside themselves with excitement. Santa has sprinted from the party room to the grotto, and is now in situ waiting to hear Christmas wishes from the children. The room looks stunning and the children are all smiles.

Christmas in our special school is always an occasion to look forward to. The staff really go the extra mile to ensure it is the best day possible for all our children. As we wave them off, home to their neat and ordered houses, a gang of very tired staff begins a huge clean up operation to transform the party room back into a school hall. There is no moaning or complaining. The music is nudged a little louder and everyone willingly pitches in, safe and happy in the knowledge that, whatever happens, all our children have had a good Christmas day.

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