A Fond Farewell to a Fine School
The story of Ewing School begins in 1913 with Irene Goldsack. She became the teacher-in-charge of the Royal School of the Deaf, a residential infant school for the hard of hearing in Manchester. Today, renamed and relocated, it is now part of the Seashell Trust’s network of special schools.
In 1919, she met up with Alexander Ewing and gained the first lectureship in a lectureship for training teachers. That year saw the birth of the University of Manchester’s Department of Audiology. As a result of their far-reaching work, they were based at the University of Manchester till the mid-1960s. During her time, she also married Alexander Ewing, later becoming Lady Irene Ewing.
This led to the foundation of the Ewing Foundation. Set up by Mr and Mrs Malcolm McAlpine in 1952, following their son’s positive response to the Ewings’ programme, it raised greater awareness of hard of hearing children. The Ewings developed behavioural hearing tests for babies and toddlers, based on the belief early intervention would help. They would later set up parent guidance programmes, provision for partially hard of hearing children and integration programmes. The Ewing Foundation still has a base at the University of Manchester to this day.
The advocation of Sir Alexander Ewing’s oral approach to speech therapy and recent developments would materialise properly in 1967 – 68. 1968 saw the opening of The Ewing School, with Ian Petrie its original headteacher. The school opened as a residential facility, well connected with the rest of the Manchester Corporation boundary. Flats would be built on the corner of Central Road and Palatine Road for the warden, or teacher out on duty for the residential pupils. The headteacher would have his or her own house on the right hand side of the school.
The school was constructed using the CLASP building system, commonplace among contemporary Manchester Education Committee buildings of that period. Instead of bare brick as seen with some schools, it was cladded with pebbledash, sporting an asphalt roof. A private house and a bowling green stood on the site prior to 1967. As respite from the academic work, its pupils would be taken to local parks on the bus by the teachers. This as well as enabling them to let off steam was at odds with then contemporary images of residential schools.
By 1970, it started accepting day pupils. The school was extended to accommodate this, with classrooms closer to Palatine Road. The intake increased from 12 to almost four times that. By 1988, it had some 55 pupils.
In 1974, Greater Manchester County Council was formed. Its regional importance [to GMC] would see the school accepting pupils from beyond the Manchester City Council boundaries. As well as Tameside, Oldham, Bolton, Stockport et al, it would sometimes take in pupils from Cheshire and Yorkshire where residential provision was required.
The end of 1970s and start of the 1980s would usher in an era of more specialist provision, tailored directly to the child’s needs. Baroness Warnock’s report from 1979 paved the way for The Statement of Special Educational Needs, part of the 1981 Education Act. Each parent who felt that his or her child would need special provision would be assessed by their local authority, who would look at each case individually prior to making a recommendation.
The start of the new decade would see the Ewing School as a fully fledged special school for pupils from 5 to 19 years of age. This was augmented by the formation of a Reception Group, where children aged 3 to 5 would attend. A new headteacher would take over from Mr Petrie: Douglas Williams. His deputy would be Hilary Butterworth.
Developments affecting Ewing School in the 1980s
The start of the decade would also see greater awareness of what would now be termed autism spectrum disorders. In 1981, Dr. Lorna Wing translated Hans Asperger’s papers on autism into English, and created the term ‘Asperger Syndrome’, to differentiate from the higher functioning persons which Hans Asperger observed from Leo Kanner’s findings (which would be termed ‘classic autism’).
Another breakthrough came in 1983 when Isabelle Rapin and Doris Allan discovered what would be called Semantic Pragmatic Syndrome. Known more commonly as a Pragmatic Language Impairment, the person would have difficulty grasping the meaning of, and appropriate context of any given number of words. In 1989, Dorothy Bishop – then at the University of Manchester – developed a paper entitled Autism, Asperger Syndrome and Semantic Pragmatic Disorder: Where Are The Boundaries?, owing to its comorbidity with other autism spectrum disorders.
By the end of the decade, Ewing School would cover a wider scope of pupils with speech and language disorders. Some pupils would have a speech and language disorder alongside others. For example, some would be hard of hearing, others may be on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum with Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Asperger Syndrome.
Ewing School in the 1980s
The small class sizes and high teacher ratio continued as had been the case since formation. In 1988, there was a total of 55 pupils in four groups. The first group, known as the Reception Group, had seven pupils and three teachers. The next group – termed the First Group – had 14 pupils (including myself) and four teachers. Each child would be allocated a teacher in accordance to their ability. Each subgroup would have a colour: brown, blue, red and yellow – in that order up to highest ability. On starting in January 1987, I was in the second highest group within the First Group, before joining the top group within the First Group in February 1987.
By the Middle Group, the teacher to pupil ratio dropped, with three teachers for a class of 15. Then two teachers for a class of 18 in the Upper Group and more specialist teachers for cookery and woodworking. Each academic lesson was complemented by one-to-one speech therapy which took place twice weekly. From Reception Group to First Group, there was some emphasis on play, whereas a more academic element was introduced in the Middle Group. The Upper Group would also veer towards daily living skills.
Further to the classrooms, there was two speech therapy rooms per group and a third room for story telling. The First Group used its two speech therapy rooms for their original purpose and occasional meetings with each subgroup. The third story telling room was used by all members of the First Group, to round off proceedings. Further to that, there was a playground with a sandpit and storage shed for outdoor play in summer months.
The Middle Group used one speech therapy room for its original purpose, with the second room housing one of the Middle Group’s subgroups. The story telling room assumed a similar purpose as the second speech therapy. There was also male and female toilets. Outdoor activities involved gardening, whereby three grass verges became the Middle Group’s gardening plots. A pond was added in 1989.
Facilities for the Upper Group included a workshop and a kitchen with dining area (for Home Economics lessons). The latter would also be shared by the other three groups for cookery and baking. The Upper Group’s classrooms included one room separated by a glass partition and a second room next to the headteacher’s office. The latter was hitherto used as an audiologist laboratory for oral learning and assessment in accordance to the principles of Sir Alexander Ewing. This was split by a glass partition, akin to a recording studio setting.
Some pupils would augment their oral communication with sign language or other equipment. The system Ewing School opted for was the Paget Gorman Signed Speech method, which offered a more kinesthetic method of augmentative communication. Other equipment used would include The Touch Talker. Pupils would specify their needs by means of pressing a button which sounded out whether he or she would like seconds at the dinner table or the Lego set.
There was also great emphasis on social skills. Once weekly, the whole class would be encouraged to gain social skills in the outside world by means of a short day trip. One class would use the school minibus which would be accompanied by two or three members of staff. Sometimes, one or two pupils would make the same journey in a teacher’s car as the minibus only seated 12 children and two adults at the front. If another class used the minibus (i.e. if the Middle Group used it for their week in Whitby), one class would – accompanied by staff – take the bus for their outing.
All pupils would take their dinner at the same time each day, at 1230 hours. Instead of long tables, there would short tables with a teacher sat at the end. Food would be served in bowls and dished out onto plates by the teacher, more consistent with hotels instead of school canteens. There was three playtimes: morning, dinnertime and afternoon. The latter break wasn’t observed by Middle Group and Upper Group pupils. The dinnertime break followed after dinner at 1300 hours for thirty minutes. Assembly always took place on Fridays before dinner.
At odds with most schools, teachers were addressed by their first names. The exceptions to that rule applied to the headteacher and the deputy headteacher.
The Turbulent Nineties
Ewing School entered its third full decade. Whereas the 1970s and 1980s had been kind to Ewing, the tide was starting to turn. The language at the time favoured inclusion and competition; the former being a positive aspect of the school since 1968. The latter came in the form of newly introduced League Tables and the National Curriculum. In Special Educational Needs provision, Local Education Authorities could choose not to observe the National Curriculum, or modify parts of it to better suit SEN provision. From the start of the National Curriculum in 1989, Ewing School chose the latter till the mid 1990s.
The school celebrated its 21st birthday one Saturday in March 1991. A celebratory cake was cut in the dining hall and photographed for posterity in the Manchester Evening News. The future seemed assured.
By 1993, the reverse happened. The Conservatives returned to power with a 21 seat majority the previous year. There was further reform and reductions in local authority budgets. By 1995, it looked as if Ewing School would close for good. It was proposed that the school would merge with Newbrook near Withington Hospital.
In 1996, these plans didn’t come to fruition. Instead, Birches School would move towards Newbrook’s premises. Ewing School would remain open, albeit with some radical changes. By then, some of the most senior staff retired, including headmaster Douglas Williams. Residential provision ceased, as did pupil admissions from outside the Manchester City Council boundary.
The Noughties: Transition to Day School
Overseeing the transition from school with mixed residential accommodation and daytime attendance was new headteacher Pat Derbyshire. With the residential block redundant, first floor and second floor accommodation was converted into classrooms with a new shallow pitch roof added. An extension was added to the former Middle Group and Upper Group classrooms.
To fund these improvements, the warden’s flat and the headteacher’s house were sold in 2001 and demolished. Part of the First Group’s mini playground followed suit. By 2003, low rise flats were built on the site. The sandpit became a flower bed.
Improvements were also made to the playground with sports equipment including basketball hoops. A school uniform was introduced, consistent with mainstream provision. In this guise, the school continued to make good progress, achieving positive OFSTED results and good feedback from satisfied parents. In a 2009 OFSTED report, it was quoted as:
‘…A good school with some outstanding features… [with] a very strong reputation in the community… appreciated both for its work with its own pupils and for its outreach work… [which] provides good value for money’.
It praised the school’s quality of teaching and ability to best prepare Year 11 pupils for the world of work or further education. The same year saw it achieve a Healthy Schools Award and a Sportsmark Award. There was also praise for its lunchtime clubs and environmental visits to local places.
By 2006, the Ewing School outlived the Newbrook School which closed in March that year. Pupils were moved to Birches School. Nearby, Shawgrove school closed, moving in with its neighbours at Cavendish Road School. Contemporary thinking favoured integration, particularly on pluralistic grounds as well as economy.
After a period of stability with Pat Derbyshire came the news which filled most parents with dread. Radical plans were drawn by Manchester City Council to review special educational needs provision. Among the plans included were the discontinuation of secondary education at Lancasterian School, and the closure of Ewing School. Instead of one specialist facility at West Didsbury, some pupils would be transferred to special needs provision within mainstream schools. Others, particularly those in greatest need would be transferred to a new facility on the site of Cedar Mount High School in Gorton.
News of the closure met with outrage among parents, making both regional news programmes (North West Tonight and Granada Reports) and BBC One’s Inside Out. The latter compared two approaches to special needs provision in Greater Manchester, comparing Manchester City Council’s with Tameside MBC’s approach. A group was set up by parents known as PACE: Parents Against the Closure of Ewing School. A representative from PACE was interviewed on Inside Out along with Councillor Sheila Newman from Manchester City Council.
PACE’s activities included a Facebook group, a website, and a rally against the closure outside Manchester Town Hall. This also attracted the attention of Manchester Withington MP John Leech, plus local celebrities Angela Griffin and Max Beesley Jr. Its closure was the subject of an Early Day Motion by the Liberal Democrat MP. By April, closure was slated for the 31 August 2012, with a 10,000 name petition being sent to Albert Square. After consultation, the plans were rubber stamped by December, ending a physical link with one of the University of Manchester’s most eminent professors.
In January 2010, the Executive agreed to the following proposals:
- The expansion of Grange School (which would see pupils on the autism spectrum at Ewing School moving there);
- The future development of Lancasterian School;
- The development of six mainstream primary school specialist units and three mainstream high school specialist units for pupils with autism spectrum disorders and/or specific language impairments.
Whereas children with an ASD or SLI were suitably placated, this would leave a few grey areas among those with more subtle needs which would have been suitably placed at Ewing School.
Transition towards the Grange
In May 2010, John Leech kept his seat, but the Labour vote throughout the Manchester City Council boundaries was strengthened. At local level, it was envisaged that closure would have been reversed if the Liberal Democrats took over Manchester City Council. Instead the Labour vote strengthened again.
A suitable site was found for their new Centre of Excellence for Autism Spectrum Disorders. The former Cedar Mount High School on Mount Road would accommodate an expanded Grange School. Grange School would relocate from Dickenson Road to the new site. As plans emerged, it was stated that its forerunner would be more ‘autism friendly’ in design. Each group would have their own entrance. It would see further community use outside of school hours. The number of pupils would double from 70 to 150. This would be created by the incorporation of its Wythenshawe satellite centre, Horizon as well as former Ewing School pupils.
Amid the planning and construction, steps were taken to ease the transition of Ewing School pupils towards their next schools. By January 2012, 18 Ewing School pupils moved to the new Horizon centre at Grange School, with three to Grange itself. Five would move to other mainstream schools, 18 would move to one of the nine specialist units within mainstream primary schools. Two would move to another specialist support school. Two families also requested independent provision.
A further 13 pupils remained at the Ewing School till the end of the 2011 – 12 academic year. Therefore, Ewing School saw out its last day with the same number of pupils it began with in 1968. As Year 11 students, they will make one final visit in August to collect their GCSE certificates, though it will be an emotional one. Not only for their academic prowess but also with the friends they’ve lost in the last three years to other schools in the area.
After that bittersweet day of celebration, the school closed its doors for good. Would Ewing School be demolished and replaced by flats? Would the present day buildings assume an alternative community use? Could someone take over the site and turn it into a Free School? If demolition is the case, will the streets honour its previous use if flats are on the site (Sir Alexander Ewing Court anyone)?
Any of the above could have happened. Besides the more specialist provision, the small size made for excellent parent to teacher relationship, and a sense of community more akin to a village school.
Twilight and transition
The Ewing School buildings were in use for a year after its official closure. During the 2013 – 14 academic year they were used by Birches School as an overflow facility. Fifteen pupils were bussed in from the main school on Nell Lane as detailed in a visit I made on the 07 November 2013.
From 2014 to 2015 it was empty again, waiting for that day when the First Group classroom became Petrie Court and Butterworth Mews. In March 2015, the site changed hands, owned by a partnership between the Diocese of Manchester, St. James and Emmanuel Church on Barlow Moor Road. Its other partners include Didsbury CE Primary School, Christ Church West Didsbury and a few local businesses.
In June 2015, demolition work began on most of the former Ewing School buildings. Left untouched was the 1990s extension, added in front of the Middle Group’s classroom. During the summer holidays, the rest of the site was made good. Thereafter, the car park was remodelled and expanded, as was the playground. New buildings were added in front of the former Middle Group extension and in place of the three-storey residential block.
The school’s first pupils came in September 2015. As the West Didsbury CE Primary School it caters for pupils from Reception to Year 3 – equal to in old Ewing School terms, the Reception Group and part of the First Group. It is part of the same trust that covers Didsbury CE Primary School on Elm Grove and St Wilfrids CE Primary School in Northenden. Today, Ewing School’s successor – in bricks and mortar form – has 240 pupils.
What about Ewing School’s successor in its spiritual form rather than in bricks and mortar form? In December 2011, the Grange School opened on the site of the (original) Cedar Mount High School. The following month saw the relocation of Ewing School pupils. Unlike the 55 pupils at Ewing School’s zenith, it has places for 179 pupils aged four to nineteen years of age. There is space for ‘outdoor education’, similar to the weekly trips undertaken by Ewing School pupils, though this only applies to pupils aged 14 – 19.
Whereas West Didsbury CE Primary School got a Good rating from OFSTED in 2018, Grange School received an Inadequate rating. In 2017 it was placed into special measures after getting a Good rating in 2014. The latter school has had mixed reviews but the most critical reviews have come from ex-Ewing School pupils who were moved there. One ex-pupil cited its “insufficient curriculum and poor teaching methods” and said:
“Students that came from Ewing were let down after being denied GCSEs. At the time, I was too young and oblivious to acknowledge how important education was… I am extremely dissatisfied with the inadequate resources provided to those who could have done GCSEs as promised by Ewing School…
“I attended this school until 2014 and I regret not going to mainstream [school] after the closure of Ewing. I could have been in my second year of university by now, but those opportunities were taken away from me while everyone else gets to achieve.”
This is almost a view shared by John Leech, Liberal Democrat councillor for Didsbury who said on his Twitter feed in 2017 that “the loss of Ewing School is felt today.”
Unlike its successors, the Ewing School enabled its pupils to sit GCSE examinations. Many of which went on to further and higher education, form businesses, and have fulfilling lives.
Is the loss of Ewing School still felt today? I would say ‘yes’. Ewing School’s pupil to teacher ratio and smaller building suited some pupils better than present-day facilities. Secondly, the school helped children with more subtle expressions of autism spectrum conditions as well as language disorders. There was also space for pupils who would fall under the Gifted and Talented categories.
Ewing School succeeded in preparing its pupils for independence and beyond. It helped the pupils that would have slipped through the net in a mainstream setting or would have floundered in a less specialist SEND school setting. With some pupils slipping through the net with present-day provision, there is still a place for a 55 pupil school with a 1:3.5 teacher to pupil ratio. At mainstream level, Academy Trusts have almost abandoned SEND provision to their perceived effects on its OFSTED ratings.
Today, private sector special schools offer the same pupil to teacher ratio as Ewing School did in the late 1980s. Places, besides being limited, come with a significant financial cost. With this background, the case for a new Ewing School is greater than ever. One that is publicly funded and in the public sector.
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An Appreciation of the Ewing School
As soon as I was I spent my four days assessment there in April 1986, I would never forget the journey. A trip in the taxi to anywhere further than Kwik Save to Chez Vall with the big shop was either: 1) overtly extravagant (what was up with the 339, 340, 343, 346 or 400?); or 2) meant I was on my way home from my late Grandma’s house in Chadderton. I loved the joys of listening to Piccadilly Radio on the 40 minute journey, and seeing what was to me new territory.
By January 1987, I was excited at the prospect of leaving Dukinfield to be taught at the Ewing School as a day pupil. By April 1987, south Manchester was more or less my second home: the joys of watching buses through the First Group window looking out to Palatine Road was almost ‘home from home’. I loved being able to address teachers by first names, the neat balance between learning and play and the structure.
Beside improving my social skills, I enjoyed the weekly trips out on the minibus (or on some occasions the 41/43/143 to Manchester). It appealed to the transport loving ratbag in me. It also gave me some sense of environmental awareness which would in later years enable me to appreciate the countryside, walking and gain the ability to travel over long distances independently. Today, I inflict on my relatives some of the trips I made with Ewing School over 30 years ago.
When everyone dreaded the return to school after the summer holidays, I always looked forward to going back to Ewing School. By 1992, I was in the opposite camp, having returned to mainstream education. There was a family atmosphere at Ewing which was lacking at my previous school and my last one. We shared with our teachers and therapists what we did over the weekend, which would encourage spontaneous conversation outside of lessons.
As I have said many times before, I would say that most of my social skills were gained at the Ewing School. The rest was outside West Didsbury after leaving school, and certainly not in Dukinfield. The staff cooperated well with myself and parents (well, my mother to be precise), and I would like to thank them.
In 2012, I hoped that the new facilities would do as good a job as they did at the Ewing School. Seven years on, as I have found from contemporary accounts, I was right to be cynical. Ewing School will be missed, not least due to the supportive atmosphere and excellent pedigree it had. Needless to say, they did it their way and it worked.
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- Overview and Scrutiny SEN Subgroup: updates on the January 2010 proposals regarding the closure of Ewing School and transition;
- OFSTED Report, 18 – 19 March 2009: Education Adviser page detailing in an easy-to-digest form the Ewing School’s OFSTED report;
- Fight to Save Ewing School Fails: South Manchester Reporter article, 23 December 2009;
- ‘What SPLD Means to Me‘: my personal article on life with Semantic Pragmatic Language Disorder with reference to the Ewing School;
- ‘My Life in the Company of Buses Part Two‘: article on the 1987 bus scene, albeit with reference to the Ewing School.
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Before I go:
Feel free to add your memories of attending the Ewing School in West Didsbury. Did you enjoy your time there? Are there any corrections or additions which need to be added to this article? Were you a former member of staff? Again, please comment in the usual fashion.
S.V., 19 July 2012.
Substantially updated on the 02 July 2019.