… and how does it feel?
Well, it feels effortless, though you know that hard work is being relentlessly applied, and it looks easy, though the skills of the staff are clearly evident. It also feels respectful, objective and there seems to be no interest in blame, gossip or drama. The business of the day starts and ends with the welfare and education of the children in a way that feels uncluttered and holistic.
It’s not like anything I have experienced before; where personal egos were the size of juggernauts, judgments and assumptions invaded every conversation and recorded note and where the overriding urge and primary focus of staff seemed to be to prove themselves right.
Lily is in Year 6 and at a school that has 660 pupils. It operates like a high school with subject specialist teachers. She has a history of high anxiety and had support from CAMHS that came to an end last September. Lily has no diagnoses (though dyslexic difficulties are evident) and no extra support funded. I have never asked for extra support for Lily, however, her clinical psychologist did meet with the SENCo to ask for a trusted adult that could work with her for an hour a week.
Here are just some of the things they have done:
Lily has a teaching assistant (TA) that is trained in social and emotional support and who is timetabled to spend time with her once per week. However, this is a very flexible arrangement, based on need (I know, I know, this should be the norm but many of you are now reeling in shock…). Lily can (and does) find this person for support at additional times throughout the week. Proactive arrangements are made during the times when it is likely that she will need more support so that she can have a few minutes every day, if needed.
Lily’s chats to her TA about her issues and worries. Her TA equips her to manage these and where necessary goes about dealing with them herself. She does detailed timetables for any weeks where there are staff or other changes. She makes sure teachers are kept on track if they don’t seem to ‘get it’. She sorts out minor friendships issues brilliantly. During difficult weeks Lily has a pass to leave the classroom and seek out the TA (she has the TA’s timetable). Critically, she feels able to use the pass – a little more on that later.
Lily’s TA nurtures her consistently with skilled kindness and understanding, this is critical to her feeling consistently emotionally safe at school. Even when her anxiety is very high, she able to take risks, knowing that if it all gets too much there is a safe space with a warm, kind and highly competent professional that will understand, and who she can access without barriers, if she needs to.
This is incredibly enabling.
The fact that Lily actually does access her TA outside of her timetabled session is a testament to the trust that has been built. As many of you will know, for a child to use the strategies that they ‘need’ can be hard. They have to know 100% that it will be safe to be different, that using the ear defenders, or asking for help, will be met with an appropriate response every time. Get it wrong and the trust is fractured. Get it wrong again and the child will know, for sure, that the help is not reliable and may retreat into their own isolated lonely world. The one where they only really safe place is home…
I know many reading this will be in tears already, so happy that this is available to a child, but at the same time devastated that their child, who also needs this so badly, has not a single trusted adult or genuinely safe space at school. I know this was the case for Peter and the result was devastating.
Lily’s support doesn’t end here, there is more. You see, for something like this to work, the underlying culture within the school has to be ‘right.’ It has to feel genuine and pervasive and it must be consistent.
Lily’s school fosters a culture whereby the teachers are consistently fun and kind. She has numerous teachers that she feels completely safe with and understood by. Lily is allowed fiddle toys in class and can spend lunchtime and breaks in the library whenever she wants to. I would say, that there are at least three teachers that she can go to and spill her heart out to if needed. Over time I have noticed her confidence in talking about difficult things consistently creep up and even in the last couple of weeks she has talked about some tricky things on a few occasions; with her TA, with a member of the senior leadership team and with a teacher.
Homework club means that the pressure of homework is almost zero. The children receive small amounts of homework (thankfully) and Lily goes to homework club every day. This amounts to a bit of extra nurture, a clearer structure/routine to the week and guaranteed help if homework is tricky. I love that home isn’t at all about school… we can concentrate on us, unfettered by stressful homework issues. If homework club is busy (too noisy), then she is welcome in the deputy head’s office instead. No big deal. She can even take a friend.
Bullying at all levels is sorted. No big emails needed. The mere whiff of intentional, repeated, unkindness is skilfully and assertively handled.
There seems to be very close attention to academic progress at Lily’s school and she has been offered intervention support in areas she needs help with. She loves these sessions! Despite accessing them, the school staff have noticed that Lily isn’t always progressing as expected. School have applied for and received approval for extra time in her SATs. No big deal. They noticed her reading through her brother’s filter and arranged everything on coloured paper, coloured books the lot. They read her literacy assessment, contacted me about it within 24 hours and made the referrals that her assessor suggested within a few days. I could go on.
Initially, Lily was planned to have just a term of the 1:1 with her TA, however, they reviewed her before the end of the term and decided that she wasn’t ready to move on just yet. Just like that. No bother, no drama, no emails, no worry for me at all.
So far this year Lily’s attendance is 100%. She could very easily be ‘school refusing’ in a different setting.
This is just a normal mainstream school – not surprisingly with a higher than average number of pupils on the SEN register.
Building the trust of a parent who has fallen victim to toxic school cultures and that has been wounded by school staff repeatedly is very difficult. My wounds are definitely healing. I promised myself I would never trust a school again – Lily’s school staff are making this very hard, I am pleased to report. I lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of the Senior Leadership Team: the culture they foster, the standards they set and the professionalism they role model.
A note on the phrase ‘her/Lily’s TA’. She doesn’t, of course, belong to Lily, she supports many children. It is just useful shorthand for the situation 🙂