No two children are alike. That's true across individuals and even more so across centuries.

It's rare for an institution to survive 150 years, two World Wars, evacuations, expansions, attempted takeovers, and multiple internal evolutions. But that's the story that Drs Iain Hutchison and Moyra Hawthorn tell in "East Park: 150 Years of Compassion", the first published history of the Glasgow school.

Founded in 1874 in the wake of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, which made education mandatory for children in Scotland, East Park evolved from a home for young people with physical disabilities into a sector-leading educational institution for young people across a wide spectrum of additional needs, including autism.

Over 150 years, the school has ridden multiple waves of societal change, each of which sparked an evolution at East Park. As East Park School Executive Director Keiron O'Brien put it, each new chapter opened the doors to a new group of "lost and forgotten young people", who found in East Park a place to chase their potential.

The types of young people who lived and learned on the Maryhill campus changed, he added, but the central goal of basing decisions around children's best interests remained the same.

"The value that East Park brings to the community of Maryhill, Glasgow and beyond should never be understated. And these young children and young people should never be forgotten again."

1874: Compulsory, but not universal, education

In the 19th century, East Park offered a safe haven for young people with rickets, polio, tuberculosis, and other serious physical conditions and disabilities. In the wake of the 1872 act, members of Glasgow's aristocracy – including East Park founder William Mitchell – made it their mission to seek out children who were left out of school.

This involved some of the leading ladies of Glaswegian society navigating the dark, dank tenements of 1870s High Street, finding disabled children living in what sometimes amounted to little more than cupboards.

Dr Hutchison said: "People didn't really know about these young people, because they weren't mobile. So they were sadly out of sight as well as out of mind. But it was always the ladies who did the hard graft, to go and visit these children in their own homes. To arrange medicines, nutritious food and so forth."

The volunteers in the school attendance movement quickly learned that some physical disabilities needed 24-hour care. 

The Herald: Iain Hutchison and Moyra Hawthorn, authors of East Park: 150 Years of Compassion, shared some of the school's history with audience members at the Mitchell Library.Iain Hutchison and Moyra Hawthorn, authors of East Park: 150 Years of Compassion, shared some of the school's history with audience members at the Mitchell Library. (Image: Gordon Terris)

And so, after identifying a cottage in what was then the countryside setting of Maryhill, East Park Home was born. 

Dr Hawthorn said that it wasn't until as late as the 1970s that children with what we would today call additional support needs – autism, neurodivergent conditions, and more – were accepted at East Park.

"Right up until the 1970s, these children were deemed ineducable. But that gradually changed over time, I suspect because children with these physical health conditions reduced."

Surviving the Nazis and the NHS

During the tumultuous years of the two World Wars, East Park was not able to escape untouched. Just as the sprawling city of Glasgow had since grown to swallow Maryhill, so too did the conflict from Europe spill over to the children's doorsteps. 

The Herald: East Park School over the decades.East Park School over the decades. (Image: East Park School)

During the 1941 Clydebank Blitz, East Park's children were evacuated to the institution's Largs branch. No forced evacuation is an easy ask logistically, but evacuating more than 100 disabled children with less than 24 hours' notice? 

Dr Hawthorn called it a feat worthy of the history books.

"Having been a manager working with disabled children, the thought of moving 100 children that quickly: I was blown away by that."

East Park continued to have an active role in the war, despite the evacuation, she said. 

"It was initially an extension of the Royal Infirmary. But during the Clydebank Blitz, some bombs actually fell on Maryhill. And some children from the community sheltered at East Park and were treated for minor injuries."

East Park has a long history as a healthcare provider. And it was this service that almost brought an end to East Park as its known today, Dr Hutchison said. 

Read more from Garrett Stell:

More pupils report additional needs while specialist support plummets

Shot on the school run: When education makes you a target, where do you turn?

The Edinburgh institution that defied the Nazis

"East Park was very close to being absorbed into the National Health Service when the NHS was set up. But it was able to maintain its independence, perhaps against all the odds.

"I think it was the educational aspect that was East Park's saving grace in managing to avoid being absorbed into the NHS."

After that, East Park began the slow transition towards placing education front and centre. As treatments for polio, rickets and tuberculosis became commonplace, the number of children in need declined. East Park needed to find a new way to help Glasgow's young people.

As former chair of the East Park Board of Trustees Gerry Wells said, the school's flexibility is what allowed it to survive and continue helping young people.

"There were plenty of times in the past 150 years that East Park could have folded. But the school kept finding ways to adapt, adapt, adapt. And it still does."

The Herald: East Park School Executive Director Kieron O'BrienEast Park School Executive Director Kieron O'Brien (Image: Gordon Terris)

Dr Hutchison credited some of those narrow survivals to the charitable support that East Park has received from the start. Celebrities from the Victorian aristocrats who founded it, to Sir Henry Lauder, Sir Billy Connolly and Roy Rogers have provided financial support and publicity that has been vital for East Park as an independent organisation.

Into a more inclusive future

As the law changed so that no child, whatever their condition or situation, could be considered "ineducable", East Park began to specialise in care for children with additional support needs.

Dr Hutchison said that this transition was not only key to East Park's survival, but it's also what makes it such an inspirational story. 

"Children with certain types of appearance or conditions are often underrated and underestimated. People put them in boxes apart from 'able-bodied' society. But there are many things that they are able to turn their hands to, it's just that the methodology and their approach has to be different."

Providing that type of individual and adaptable care and education plan to children with additional support needs has become East Park's bread and butter in recent years, Dr Hawthorn said. 

"Every child has their own individual education plan that they are working through, and the residential and care staff are all working to it as well."

All of the roughly 240 members of staff now at East Park – from teachers to carers to residential and maintenance workers – receive specialised training in how to support the young people in their care. Twenty-three children from 12 local authorities attend East Park, and the school has been fully subscribed for years with a regular waitlist. 

Catriona Campbell, head of education, said that maintaining the high staff-to-young-person ratio is critical to East Park's success, because every student's experience must be so tailored in order for them to make the most of their time.

"Our children are grouped in six different classes, but they're not classes like you would see in a local authority special provision. There are often individual spaces for children. Two-thirds of our children are non-verbal, but that doesn't mean they can't access the curriculum.

"That just means that we have to be a lot more persistent in finding ways to break down the barriers."

The Herald:

The staff are constantly working on innovation strategies, and look to stay on the cutting edge of advances in teaching. Incorporating play pedagogy and trauma-informed practices are a few new strategies that Ms Campbell has helped bring to East Park.

"Each of our children's needs are so complex, but so many have experienced trauma. Whether that's from a placement breakdown, attachment challenges or family struggles. 

"It has been really helpful to pair autism training with trauma-informed practice. Some children come in and autism seems like the biggest challenge, but it's the trauma in their background that may be a bigger issue."

'The book is finished but not the journey'

This week, Mr O'Brien helped host a book launch for the history of East Park, featuring a question and answer session with the authors and a chance for some of East Park's students to serenade the public with their school song's world premiere.

He said he hopes the book gives readers a glimpse into all of the work that takes place at East Park every day and appreciate the staff.

"Teachers have to be so aware of every movement and what's going on around the child all the time. You can have all the degrees in the world, but if you haven't got that empathy it won't work."

And the growth of staff and children continues on a daily basis, he said.

"Although the book is finished, the journey continues. The authors have so strongly captured that evolving organisation that has adapted for the benefit of children and young people.

"That is the key. Whatever decisions we make, they are one hundred percent for the children."

You can purchase a copy of "East Park: 150 Years of Compassion" from the school's website.