Monday, 25 March 2024 14:28

“Our students never cease to amaze me” – what it’s like working in a Catholic special needs school

Sheila TalwarSt Rose’s is a non-maintained, all through school in Stroud, Clifton Diocese, for students with special educational needs and disabilities. St Martin’s, a specialist college for those aged 19-25, is also based within the school grounds.

Over a hundred years ago a child with special needs, who could not be accommodated in a parish school, was left with the Dominican Sisters of St Rose’s Convent in Stroud. This led the Sisters to found St Rose’s School in 1912 – one of the very first special schools in the country.

In 1973 Mother Teresa, later canonised as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, heard about the children’s efforts to raise money for her work by holding a sponsored silence and she visited the school later that year. Today, students continue to raise money for charities.

St Rose’s is part of the parish of The Church of the Immaculate Conception, and has an accessible chapel on site. It was rated as ‘Outstanding’ in its latest Catholic Schools Inspectorate report. The school community is active in participating in Mass and liturgical celebrations, even though many are not Catholics, but understand the school’s heritage and value of its mission of the word of Christ and his teachings.

Long service

Sheila Talwar (pictured) is Principal of St Rose’s and St Martin’s and remembers volunteering to support St Rose’s students who travelled to a local school in Gloucester to use the swimming pool for hydrotherapy.

She said: “My first contact was while volunteering in the sixth form. Visiting St Rose’s as a school student I knew that I always wanted to work with children with disabilities.”

In January 1977 the forward-thinking Sisters took on Sheila as their first occupational therapy student, therapists being unusual at the time for special schools. After passing her exams Sheila returned as maternity cover, then on a more permanent basis as part of a job share.

As well as meeting students’ educational potential, enabling independence is a key part of the curriculum, teaching life skills such as nutrition, money management and time management, while wheelchair-accessible transport provides opportunities for trips to go shopping, ice skating, and more. Other activities students enjoy include horse riding, yoga, and swimming in the St Rose’s hydrotherapy pool.

In the past students enjoyed trips to Stoke Mandeville Stadium, birthplace of the Paralympic Games, to watch and participate in athletics events. Some have gone on to take part in national and international sporting competitions, including winning the London Mini Marathon wheelchair race.

Over the years St Rose’s has also taken students to pop concerts such as Meat Loaf, Madness, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson and Musical Youth.

“In those days you could go backstage and meet musicians,” Sheila said, “we ended up playing piggy-back races with members of Musical Youth. We even met Stevie Wonder! More recently we have taken students to the WOMAD music festival and Cheltenham Jazz Festival which was a truly sensory experience.”

The Sisters soon asked Sheila to head the sixth form, which involved being responsible for a mix of therapy as well as education, and 15 years later Sheila took on the role of Head of Care.

St Martin’s

After sixth form, students used to leave St Rose’s and go on to other specialist, secular, colleges elsewhere. This led to the establishment just over a decade ago of St Martin’s, a residential college built on the school grounds which includes a work-related learning and careers programme, work experience placements, and mentoring.

Sheila said: “The thing for me is how important it is our students have the opportunities that mainstream children have. In the past, our young people have been able to go to university and have careers, such as qualifying as a social worker, or working for the BBC, and one student became a member of the Para Orchestra. These days our students have more complex needs, and our focus is on preparing them for their adult lives with as much independence as possible.”

Over the years she has seen many changes, such as a move away from students sleeping in dormitories and spending entire terms staying on site. Today, most residential students go home every fortnight, both to spend time with their families and to stay on the local authority’s radar for support services.

Changing needs

Students also have physical and health needs that are more challenging than in the past. Advances in medical technology have improved survival rates of preterm babies and children after severe trauma or illness.

Sheila said: “Our aim is to help each of our students recognise their unique worth in the eyes of God. The value our students bring to the world and the part they play in society cannot be measured, they really are quite amazing in what they achieve.

“Some students might have been to other schools where they don’t have speech and language technology, then come here and learn to communicate, to read and take a more active role in their lives, it’s just awe-inspiring.

“Our students never cease to amaze me. From learning to walk, to learning to use a communication aid, to running a tuck shop or learning phonics, the students are endlessly determined and creative in the ways they learn and develop. What our students do on a daily basis is phenomenal.”

Building the future

A fundraising campaign launched in 2019 by Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards continued throughout all the restrictions of the pandemic, eventually raising £1.5million and culminating in the opening in May 2022 of Quentin House, a new residential block.

Students benefit from bespoke bedrooms and enjoy preparing food in an adapted kitchen. Short stays for day pupils additionally help to develop their independence.

The next stage of the campaign, titled St Rose’s 2030, is to update older buildings, and expand St Martin’s, with £250,000 pledged so far towards a target of £1.8million.

Find out more about St Rose’s and St Martin’s, and to make a donation please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Read 3372 times Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2024 14:46