Headteacher who is a specialist in giving special attention
Barrie Hudson talks to Katharine Bryan, 53, the headteacher of the
"YOU always get people saying, ‘Have you got anybody like Rain Man?’ For goodness’ sake...”Katharine Bryan rolled her eyes in exasperation.
The Chalet School has 55 pupils aged three to 11, all with complex learning difficulties and most with an Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC).
The IQM accolade recognises the school’s work to integrate pupils with mainstream society.
There’s a lot less ignorance about ASCs these days, but the stereotype of the autistic savant persists – and a stereotype is all it is.
“There are people like Stephen Wiltshire, the artist, who are people that have a particularly wonderful skill,” said Katharine, “but they are few and far between and they can still be so impaired by their autism.
“Yes, they can do wonderful things but they may not be able to lead what we believe is a normal life. That doesn’t mean they’re unhappy but it does mean they might need somebody to support them all the time.”
Katherine was born in Leicester and lived there until she was 16 and her family relocated to Keynsham in Somerset.
Her mother was a housewife and her late father a teacher who eventually became head of community and youth services in Avon. He also taught in prisons and helped recent overseas immigrants in Leicester learn English. Katharine has an elder brother and sister; her sister is a teacher.
Katherine said: “After the war a lot of people like my father trained to be teachers. Teachers were needed because they had lost a lot of men. He and my mum’s brother trained to be teachers.
“From an early age I knew I wanted to teach special needs children. I remember being asked at junior school when I was about 10. I doubt I said ‘special needs children’ because I wouldn’t have known the term, but I think that’s what I was intimating.”
But why this specialisation instead of general teaching?
“I think I just always liked children who needed that extra bit of help – and not just children. I loved my Nana and I helped her as she got older, and anybody else who needed going that extra mile for.”
Coupled with this was, and still is, a deep interest in special educational needs and how they can best be met, but Katharine’s first teaching job didn’t allow her much scope to fulfil her ambition.
In 1982, following a psychology degree at Portsmouth Polytechnic and a post-graduate teaching qualification at Matlock College of Higher Education, Katharine joined a mainstream school in Suffolk. She was to remain there for four years as an English and drama teacher.
“I became disillusioned. I don’t know how long before I moved to Suffolk that the school would have changed from an old grammar to a comprehensive, but there were a lot of teachers there at the time who perhaps preferred the old system.
“I would spend a lot of time building the self-esteem of the children I worked with. They came to me at 13 and some could simply not read. They’d had years of being let down by the educational system.
“I was trying to build their self-esteem and then I’d walk by a classroom and find one of my children stood on a chair while a teacher got them to say, ‘I’m stupid, I’m stupid’.
“I didn’t have the power to do anything about it, especially as a woman. I was a young woman.
“I left. I moved to Manchester and got a job at Grange School, a school for children and young people with complex learning difficulties.”
At last, Katharine had found the job she had always felt she was meant to do, and set about learning everything she could. This included studying for a second teaching qualification focused on children and young people with ASCs.
The move to The Chalet School came in 1996. “I had not long had a baby and wanted to be closer to my parents. My mum still lives in Box.”
Unable to find a home in Swindon because of the fierce property market at the time, she opted for Calne.
In 2000 she was appointed deputy head and a couple of years later became acting head when much-loved headteacher Mary Topping fell ill with the cancer that would claim her life in 2003. Mary was a staunch supporter, and sent Katharine a floppy disc she entitled How to Suck Eggs Part One and Two.
“I had no designs on being headteacher,” said Katharine. “I was acting head until 2005, and when they advertised the post I got it.”
She sees her most important responsibility as ensuring all pupils are in a safe environment throughout their time at the school. Hot on the heels of this is the professional development of staff.
“It’s important to build relationships with the children, the staff and the parents. If you build a relationship with the staff you have a happy team. Building a relationship with parents is also vital because it means consistency. Good things being done here can be done at home and vice versa.”
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