Learning from Others: My Work Abroad with Disabled Adolescents

Author: Essaka Joshua

“In community-based learning, the success of any one student is connected to successful engagement with others—other students, faculty, community partners,”
~Vicki L. Reitenauer, “Becoming Community: Moving from I to We”

My name is Mary McKeever and I am writing this blog as a way to reflect on my experiences and share my insights at the Riverside School for disabled adolescents. I am a junior studying English and Psychology on Notre Dame’s London campus this semester and this opportunity is unique to the London Program. As a psychology major, I am interested in understanding disability in a practical, day-to-day basis; as an English major, I am interested in the depiction of mental illness and physical disability in literature and its reception in society.

Though we had only been in London for one week, the fifteen-mile train ride from Victoria station to Riverside School in Kent, England, was a welcome relief. We arrived at the school, however, to find that we actually were not expected until the following week! Though it was the first day of the term after summer holiday, the faculty was extremely accommodating; an impromptu orientation commenced and we learned the basics of our placement. Every Thursday, sixteen ND students with majors ranging from Psychology to Pre-Med to Education, Schooling, and Society will spend the afternoons at Riverside.

This first entry will focus mainly on the Riverside mission and background of the school.

“Where there is a will, together we will find a way”

Above is the motto of the Riverside School, “a special school for approximately 160 pupils aged between 4-19 years in the London Borough of Bromley,” writes Dr. Vivian Hinchcliffe, the Headteacher, in the welcome packet given to us on orientation day. Dr. Hinchcliffe further writes, “The school has a diverse pupil population: all the pupils have severe or profound learning disabilities, and some may also have physical disabilities or Autistic Spectrum Disorders. The school offers a safe, positive, and challenging environment for its pupils. Its children and young people enjoy school and staff and parents have high expectations of them.”

Dr. Hinchcliffe is the main liaison between the University of Notre Dame and Riverside School and has been at Riverside for 33 years. In addition to coordinating the sixteen ND volunteers with classrooms at all age levels, he teaches Developmental Disabilities after the Riverside School day is over, completing the ideal combination of community and education. The three subsequent sections will be paraphrased from the information packet we received on our first day; I apologize for the formality of this first entry, but I want to fully outline the mission and vision of this extraordinary school.

Teacher Training and Research

Riverside School provides a number of training courses for teachers and professionals working with children with special needs. It acts as a Resource School to a number of local mainstream schools.

The school delivers courses to local education authorities and universities. The school has a strong track record of curriculum innovation, development and research. Its staff is highly qualified and has published numerous papers and chapters in leading journals and books.
Organization and Resources

The school has 3 departments: Primary, Secondary, and Further Education. Class sizes are small and children are grouped roughly according to age. The adult-pupil ration across the school is roughly 1 adult to 2 pupils and this allows the school curriculum to be differentiated to meet children’s individual needs

The school has excellent facilities, including:

  • Hydrotherapy pool
  • Sunken trampoline sports hall
  • Multi-sensory room
  • Music therapy room
  • Large performing arts hall
  • Horticulture unit
  • Food technology room
  • Science room
  • ICT resource room
  • Speech and Language, Physiology, and Occupational Therapy
  • Training and parents’ room
  • Inside and outside play areas, including all weather surfaces

The school has a successful integration program with local mainstream nurseries, schools, and colleges. All pupils in the primary and secondary department have opportunities to work alongside mainstream pupils each week. Some students attend college links and community college courses.

Riverside’s Vision Statement

Together we will build a progressive, flagship school with a first class, holistic curriculum centered on the needs of each individual pupil. Pupils will be stretched and challenged within a fun, safe, and happy environment. The voices of pupils, parents, and staff will be respected and valued. The vision statement is underpinned by three key principles, collectively known as “The Three P’s”

Pupil Centered


  • Education should meet individual needs
  • The holistic development of our children and young people will be nurtured
  • We will make a positive difference to the lives of children and their families
  • Planning and decision making will be open, honest, transparent, and person-centered
  • Pupils will be enabled to reach their full potential within the context of their individual needs
  • Pupils will be actively encouraged to exercise control over their lives
  • All children and young adults will be treated with dignity and prized for the contributions they make
  • Individual differences will be recognized, respected, and celebrated and equality of opportunities recognized



  • We will have the highest expectations for our young people
  • We will be passionate about progress and be open-minded with regards to notions of “progress”
  • We will have an unswervingly positive ethos that embraces innovation and new ideas

Partnership Working (pupils, parents, and staff)

  • Pupils and students will have a voice that is respected and listened to, however subtle or loud
  • Parents will be consulted, listened to, respected, and supported
  • Staff will be valued and supported

In this blog, I aim to report the stories and struggles of individual students I work with, the teachers at Riverside, and the general environment of a school with such an important mission. I was considerably impressed with Dr. Hinchcliffe’s emphasis on expectation of these students – he is a man who truly puts ability over disability. He has a friendly air and welcoming attitude, in addition to knowing the names and detailed backgrounds of each of the 160 pupils, but he is also has the grace and diplomacy to maintain respect as the Headteacher of a distinguished school. Though I will be there for a fraction of the time that he has, I hope to model my behavior and expectations on his own.