IN 2017 a chance meeting between Ysgol Y Deri headteacher Chris Britten and Slam Media producer Ffion Humphries led to discussions over a fly-on-the-wall documentary on the school.

Mr Britten met Ms Humphries while she was shooting a video for the Pearson Teaching Awards, and a teacher from Ysgol Y Deri, Lisa Rees-Renshaw, claimed the award for outstanding use of technology in education.

Learning more about the special school and the impact it has on families and children’s lives in Penarth and further afield, Ms Humphries mooted the idea of a pitch to the BBC.

“It was completely out of the blue,” said Mr Britten. “There was no conscious plan, it was just ‘okay let’s give it a go’.”

Ms Humphries arrived at the school in the autumn of 2019 to begin filming the three-part series which will warm the hearts of a nation when it begins on Monday, September 14.

“Our only stipulation when Ffion told us she’d like to do the documentary was that the kids were shown in a good light," said Mr Britten.

“There are highs and lows here, but we don’t do bless. If we do things, we do them well.

“I think it’s turned out brilliantly. I really wanted people to know what schools like ours are like. I think sometimes people think of a special school and picture challenging children, but the reality is so different.

“We regard these kids as differently able rather than disabled, and we’re lucky to be in a place where the local authority puts so much into this provision. It’s a celebration of them as much as us.”

Ysgol Y Deri is the biggest special school in the UK and is home to 330 pupils. Such is the demand that plans are in the offing for a new primary school as well as a pupil referral unit.

The series focuses heavily on the extra-curricular activities the students enjoy, including a trip to Exmoor, and Mr Britten says it is vital for their development – although he is keen to remind viewers they do maths and English too.

Penarth Times: The three-part series follows the daily lives of pupils as they conquer their fears and overcome daily challenges (Credit: BBC)The three-part series follows the daily lives of pupils as they conquer their fears and overcome daily challenges (Credit: BBC)

“The bedrock of our ethos is about the pupils’ wellbeing and self-esteem," Mr Britten said.

“In one of the episodes you’ll learn about Luke, who uses a communication device to speak to us. You realise through the device that he’s actually a very bright and witty young man.

“We have to develop a can-do culture here, because if we don’t who will do that for these kids? That develops with the kids feeling good about themselves.”

Technology like drones and virtual reality is used to give children with mobility issues experiences they might otherwise miss out on, like riding a rollercoaster or seeing beautiful views from the top of a mountain.

“It’s so important to do the extra-curricular stuff because that is what makes them feel good about themselves.

“We have a young lad with muscular dystrophy. We’ve got him a radio-controlled car with a GoPro on it, and now he’s Youtubing and he loves it.

“The ideas the staff come up with for the kids are bonkers.”

The environment relies on an ethos where mistakes are allowed to happen and are even embraced. Quantified risks are taken to give the children the best chance to achieve.

“We call it ‘creative curriculum’ – but it probably shouldn’t be called that because all curriculums should be creative.

“The other side of it is to make sure they have the right sort of skills for life – like learning how to work a washing machine, or a kettle. I get a lot of parents with children at mainstream schools saying their kids could do with some of that.”

It doesn’t take long in Mr Britten’s company to realise how much he is bursting with pride for the staff and students at the school.

“I’m glad we filmed it around Christmas because it is my favourite time of year. All the kids will do something. The little ones do nativities and the older ones do their performance.

“I can’t help but think ‘how fantastic’. You watch them grow up through the years and it really hits home how far they have come.

“I’m often moved to tears. I really have never cried as much as I do in this job.”

He says it was a shame the documentary couldn’t include the annual Big Lunch community event, where 90 to 100 people from the area turn up for a slap-up meal.

“It’s a great way for the kids to show what they can do and give something back, and the lunch is truly astonishing.

“We’re lucky to have a professional kitchen here where they learn lots of brilliant catering skills.

“It’s really about knocking back stereotypes and reminding our community that these kids are extremely capable.”

Children returned to the school this month for the first time since a brief stint back in June.

Like every school, it’s a challenging time for Mr Britten and his team, and conversations on the new curriculum have been put to one side.

Due to the nature of the children’s needs, social distancing isn’t possible, and everyone wears a mask with lots of PPE available.

Penarth Times: Headteacher Chris BrittenHeadteacher Chris Britten

“We haven’t thought about it too much (the curriculum) – I don’t want them to think about it. We have got to make sure the students are happy.

“Perhaps it’s a time just to chill out for a bit – for the staff as well as the students.

“Actually, the kids haven’t been fazed by it at all. For some who need to see our face we have see-through masks, and we have no shortage of visors because we were making 15,000 of them for care homes in the community throughout lockdown.”

Asked why there is an increasing demand for special provision schools across Wales, he said: “I don’t know the answer, but I wonder about the impact of the modern world on the children of today.

“There is something called the still face experiment. It is where a parent ignores their child and stares at them for a short period of time. Within minutes it becomes horribly difficult to watch because the child is so distressed.

“When you walk down the street, take notice of the number of children not getting sufficient attention. There seems a tsunami of children growing up with attachment issues, who then struggle in mainstream education.”

Most of the students go to college or specialist colleges when they leave the school, with some going to university.

“The most important thing is that the destination they end up at is where they want to be,” Mr Britten added.

“We’re very lucky we have 300 staff members here and have the ability to tailor each child’s learning environment. So if they want to be a chef when they’re 14, we can put a five-year plan in place to get them there, with plenty of work experience, work in the kitchen, and the extra-curricular stuff to help them believe in themselves.

“I think all schools should be measured on that, rather than what their grades and statistics look like.

“Where do your students end up? How many went on to do what they wanted to do when they were young? And did we make a difference in helping them to get there?".