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A haven for both the child with specific learning difficulties and their parents, 'We were like Jack Russells – wouldn't let go; constantly battling with school, the LA, specialists, each other. Now we have found Unicorn we can relax. We no longer have to scream to be heard or battle for our child to be understood.' Not only does Unicorn provide much needed cover from the bullets and bullies, but the joy of learning is tangible. Mornings begin with…

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What the school says...

The Unicorn School is a special co-educational day school for children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and speech and language difficulties, aged between 6 and 16 years. The Unicorn School offers GCSE education. The Unicorn School provides a nurturing environment in which every child is helped to build self-confidence, appreciate their learning difficulties and develop their own personal learning style. The school has achieved accreditation status from CReSTeD and from the children's communication charity ICAN.

The classes are small, with a maximum of 12 pupils and every child receives at least half an hour of daily individual tuition. There are a speech therapist and an occupational therapist on site.

Educational needs are met in various ways. The primary target is to enable the pupil to attain the necessary skills and strategies to make academic progress and to achieve success in their future education. This is done by intensive, specialist teaching of reading, mathematics, writing, spelling and study skills.

The National Curriculum is appropriately differentiated for our children, with emphasis on learning through activity, discussion and multi-sensory techniques.

IT is a vital tool in our teaching methods and touch-typing is taught from the outset, this is particularly valuable for children who find the physical act of writing a struggle and yet can still produce excellently presented work. It is important that childrens spelling can reach a level where the spell checker can be accessed easily. There is a computer suite, laptops available, a computer in every 1:1 room and speech recognition and other specialist educational software available.

Interested parents are assured of a warm welcome when they come to visit The Unicorn School, where they may see the school in action and discuss their childs strengths and learning difficulties.

Children come to The Unicorn School at varying stages of their education. Clearly it is best for the child to receive help as early as possible, before avoidance habits set in, but it is never too late to start. When children move on from The Unicorn School, not only have they acquired literacy skills and learning strategies to help them to go on to achieve their full academic potential, but they have also learned something else of great value - they have discovered that even if a task, such as reading or writing, seems impossibly difficult, all that is required is hard work, practice, patience and a willingness to try out different approaches to the problem, until one is found that works for that individual child.
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What the parents say...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head teacher

Since 2015, Mr Andrew Day BEd (40s), educated at Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera (Welsh speaking comprehensive in West Glamorgan), then University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. Began career at Bristol Grammar Lower School (maths, ICT plus lots of games coaching), then director of studies at Hornsby House, followed by Wycliffe Prep then Cheltenham College Junior prior to headship at Calder House School, specialist SEN prep in Wiltshire. Headhunted and persuaded by the governors of The Unicorn School to take up the challenge of extending the specialist dyslexia teaching to year 11. Passionate about helping special needs children; ‘school phobics need to find an area they can excel at’. After six days in the post, the school was visited and downgraded by Ofsted, but, fleet of foot, Day has risen to the challenge of updating policies and practices, and has now opened an adjoining stable cottage for the increasing numbers. Although the population has a primary diagnosis of dyslexia, with some social communication difficulties, he has introduced software for working memory and given due prominence to dyscalculia; ‘maths is my main subject and what I am really interested in…It is exciting to take the school to GCSE,’ he intones in his modest Welsh voice. ‘It came from the parents. They had seen the progress their children had made here’.

Academic matters

Teaches adapted national curriculum including: humanities, science, DT, drama, French and ICT. 'We skill them up; they touch-type, learn to spell-check, word-process and have a large dollop of numeracy and literacy – not only in formal morning sessions but across all their learning. We give them strategies to help them cope in mainstream, at university and in the work-place and beyond.' Mornings focus on numeracy and literacy, 'My son couldn't do his letter sounds; six months later we're seeing real progress not just in his reading but in blending sounds and spelling too. Importantly his confidence is stratospheric – he wants to read everything, even menus and road signs!' Nightly homework is within reach, fingertip stuff, appropriate to the individual child. 'School is skilled at adjusting parental expectations, the focus is very much on the individual, and measuring them against themselves,' say parents. For some schools, concentrating on individual achievement and expectations may be sub-text for 'not much progress', but here there's nowhere to hide, they track everything. It isn't unusual to find children advancing three plus years in under 12 months.

Staff know every trick in the book. The ruses and wiles youngsters may have adopted elsewhere are instantly spotted here, 'If my son tries to hide they're on him like a rash.' Frequently adopt a cross-curricula themed approach, tailored to specific needs, which children love, 'When we did Rise Of The Robots all our subjects were linked to it, so we could understand it better, it was such fun.' Teaching throughout takes account of individual learning styles, 'They see how my son learns and work with that; they adapt to him'. Timetable currently structured around maths, 'We identified this as an area we wanted to develop and improve'. Learning is practical and accessible; expect to find forensics, finger-printing and fun, 'When we looked at cells we did so by considering illness and what systems and organs are affected; it helped it make sense.' Focusing on strengths equally important as plugging weaknesses, 'My child has severe difficulty with hand-writing but they discovered, and encouraged, a talent for creative writing and now he is voluntarily writing a comic book in his free time.'

Now offers GCSEs.

Games, options, the arts

Incredibly proactive at getting children off campus and away from the Unicorn bubble: sports at Radley College, swimming in a number of locations, delicious lunch at nearby Abingdon School (Unicorn youngsters not remotely fazed by presence of burly sixth-formers). Daily sports sessions include football, hockey, netball (play in small schools league), plus sailing, swimming, judo etc. Mornings begin with 'shake-up and wake-up', a brain gym derivative which gets mind and body working in tandem. Movement and dance sessions are geared to the youngsters. 'My child is dyspraxic but he loves the sessions; he has become body and space aware. They teach them in a fun way, get them to be dragons or monsters...'

Plethora of after-school clubs: shooting, cookery, eco - 'kids are very green, well-informed and have good general knowledge' - sports etc peppered with trips to Warwick Castle, theatre, France. Technology and gadgets feature in abundance: visiting shows, such as Bionic Ear plus trips to RM real room and Lego robotic sessions, always popular. Strong community focus – active link with Mwalimu School, Africa (do look at the delightful project book in reception). Plenty for parents, including coffee mornings and socials. Many openly relieved to have found Unicorn: 'Our lives are so different, I was suffering stress-related illnesses, that's all gone. Unicorn has improved all of our lives, not just my child's.'

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1991, now housed in a converted Edwardian house near the centre of town, with a new building next door for KS3. Akin to a small-independent day school with gym, DT and art room plus smart, bright classrooms, it's kitted out with practical teaching aids, computers (all learn to touch-type), interactive whiteboards et al. Outside space is adequate with two carefully designed, compact playgrounds – one with Astro for footie or netball, the other with climbing frame constructed with the dsypraxic child in mind. Year 10 opened in 2016 and year 11 opened in 2017.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Children have their say too; there's an active school council which decided recent uniform changes, including minutiae such as modifications to the crest. A friendly, polite bunch with limitless curiosity, we were enamoured by their interest in others, 'There's continual movement so they are always welcoming, accepting and tolerant of newbies.' Virtually all simply existed in education prior to Unicorn so foremost aim is to boost confidence and self-belief then plug gaps, before moving to independent learning. 'My child was nervous for all of two days, after that the euphoria set-in; he made friends and hasn't ever looked back.' Children are incredibly articulate, with damming stories to tell: 'I wasn't getting an education at my old school', 'I thought I was stupid', 'I was shy and angry', 'My old school didn't get why I didn't get it',' I used to panic and go blank when the teacher asked me a question', 'I was told my writing was babyish.' We listened to heart-rending tales of merciless bullying, 'At my old school one boy made up a song about my dyslexia and taunted me with it'. No such tales at Unicorn, 'Here you can be who you want to be', 'They give you time to think and to learn.' Understandable then that the most prolific comment, even from recent arrivals, was a simple, 'I love it.' The only down-side for some being the journey time – can be lengthy.

Pupils and parents

A haven for both the child with specific learning difficulties and their parents, 'We were like Jack Russells – wouldn't let go; constantly battling with school, the LA, specialists, each other. Now we have found Unicorn we can relax. We no longer have to scream to be heard or battle for our child to be understood.'

Entrance

All pupils should have a report from an educational psychologist identifying either moderate to severe dyslexia as their primary need or dyspraxia, dyscalculia or speech and language difficulties (ICAN registration hoped for). Approximately 40 per cent have speech and language difficulties. Will take those with mild ASD if primary need is SpLD. Entry on first come first served basis; assessed over two-days. Some funded by home LA, though not Oxfordshire who operate an inclusion policy.

Exit

Pupils stay between one and three years, typically two. Aim is to give support, coping strategies and return to mainstream education. 'They let you know when they are cooked and ready to move on.' Places sought at known supportive schools, popular choices include Larkmead (Abingdon), d'Overbroecks in Oxford and Kingham Hill (Oxon); parents given plenty of help to find the right one. Some preps, eg Moulsford and Dragon, send pupils for a couple of years of timely intervention then take them back when appropriate. Now offers GCSEs.

Therapy and staffing

On-site speech and language therapists, art therapist and sensory integration trained, highly-praised occupational therapist. Said one parent, 'My son loves his OT sessions. Sometimes he works alone, others with his friend. He thinks he is just playing but the progress he is making is incredible.' Staff an eclectic bunch – parents say, 'There isn't a staff mould, they're all very individual, yet they make a great team'. Teachers are all qualified dyslexia specialists (or training to be), with one involved in successful outreach programmes to local state and independent schools (would like to do more). Classes are small (typically 8 or 10 students) and all children have at least one, one-to-one session daily, 'Because every child has one-to-one there is no stigma, it is part and parcel of school life but importantly it is completely centred on the needs of the individual child.'

Our view

Not only does Unicorn provide much needed cover from the bullets and bullies, but the joy of learning is tangible. The school restores faith, builds confidence; it enables children to look forward, to take charge of their learning, cope with whatever they meet, to progress and thrive. Should you need a specialist school with a big heart, a will of steel and an outstanding track record, look no further.

Special Education Needs

The aim and philosophy of the Unicorn School is to provide specialist education for dyslexic children, from both the independent and mainstream sector, and to teach strategies and skills to enable them to return to mainstream education as soon as possible. All children must have an Educational Psychologist report prior to entrance. Specialist teachers teach pupils in small classes of 8 to 10, with a daily half-hour of individual tuition. Educational and emotional needs are met on an individual basis as well as through a friendly atmosphere and community spirit. Parents are supported throughout the time they are associated with the school and helped to find supportive schools for their children to move on to.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia Y
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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