Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man

Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man” is attributed to the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. It doesn’t particularly resonate with me, partly because I work with secondary-aged students and partly because the students I work with have learning difficulties and associated conditions which means that their cognitive, social, emotional and/or physical development can be delayed, sometimes significantly. Also, my son is eight and I’m hoping he grows out of his current habits of costing me a small fortune and of supporting Manchester United.

One of the frustrations of teaching children is that I rarely get to see how they have turned out as adults. Like most teachers I have taught thousands of students with varying degrees of success. With most of them I have absolutely no idea how much influence I have had and I will never see or hear of them again. This makes me sad. However, one of the beauties of teaching children is the chance meeting in the aisle of the supermarket with a former student. You get a very brief period of time to gauge how they’ve done, if, of course, you can remember their name.

I often say to staff and parents at my school that the real measure of our success can be judged when our students are 25. Are they living independently? Have they got a job that pays? It isn’t enough for us to pat ourselves on the back because our students all secured a place at a further education college at 16 or 19. If they don’t then go on to do the things that you and I take for granted then our work may have been of limited value.

I’ve been a teacher for fourteen years and I guess that I meet a former student every couple of months or so. I once met a former student who was working in a garden centre. I’d taught both him and his brother. He was doing well but informed me that his brother had just been released from prison (one of four former students that I’m aware of that have been in prison). In virtually every case the encounter is fleeting.

For the past eighteen months, though, I have had the privilege of working with James, a great man whom I first met when I taught him science when he was in Year 8. My first job was in a secondary school that was considered to be one of the poor illegitimate cousins in the borough. We prided ourselves on our inclusive nature and took students from other schools when they’d had enough of them. We were good (in old seven-point scale money) when others were outstanding. I loved the place and still have a soft spot for it. We worked hard to develop the whole person and some of my fondest memories are from times at our outdoor education centre in mid-Wales and from Sixth Form fundraising weeks. We were a tight unit and this was evident when tragedy struck as it occasionally does for all schools. The brutal double murder of two of our students, one of whom had just left my tutor group and was a close friend of James, is a time I will never forget. It felt like the school ground to a halt for a week, but the collective strength of the staff and students was incredible. Through adversity it brought out our collective best.

Two years ago I advertised for a Sports Coach Mentor – effectively a cross between a sports coach, a behaviour support mentor and a teaching assistant. This role had been one of the cornerstones of the success of the EBD school I worked in in Slough a number of years previously. It requires a special kind of person with subtle communication skills, emotional intelligence and a commitment to working with some of society’s most vulnerable and challenging children. The sport bit is just a lever to build relationships.

I was struggling with the quality of applicants but a chance meeting with Phil Cullimore, a Parent Partnership adviser, set me on my way.

Your name’s unusual. Do you know James Cullimore?

He’s my son.”

I taught him years ago. What’s he doing now?”

He’s working at a PRU answering phones. He was coaching sport so is looking for some work.”

Within a week I had my new Sports Coach Mentor.

Eighteen months later James is embarking on a new life in Lincolnshire and this week I sadly said goodbye to him. It has been such a privilege to work with him as I’ve seen on a daily basis what an amazing man he’s become. As with all children the parents must take the lion’s share of the credit for the qualities of their grown up children but I know that the ethos and principles of the school we were both proud members of have shaped James into the person he is today. Not only has James devoted his working life to some of society’s most vulnerable people, he also gives up a fair proportion of his spare time as a Special Constable with Thames Valley Police (as I once was). Special Constables are unpaid volunteer warranted police officers that have the same powers as regular constables and are, in my view, some of the finest members of society. This does mean he works with my brother, a Sergeant, on occasion.

I have seen James deal with situations at school with such skill and composure that any behaviour management consultant would stand back and applaud. He has built very strong relationships with students but has never crossed the line in to being their mate. He is welcoming and approachable but also firm with high expectations. There were students in tears in the playground on Friday afternoon as they bid him farewell.

I like to think that he’s not the only Emmbrook School student that’s turned out like that and I’m sure he’s not. It would be nice, though, if those chance meetings were more than 60 seconds in the cereal aisle in Tesco.

I didn’t know James at seven, but I enjoyed teaching him at 12 and I’m proud to know him at 25. If you’re hiring in Lincolnshire give him a job – he’s the best.

Staff well-being

In my first week at a school for students with severe (SLD) and profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) I was badly bitten on the bottom by a girl in Year 4 whilst on duty in the playground. At the end of that same break time I attempted to enter the main building only to find the door handle and, subsequently, my hand covered in human faeces which had been left there by a young boy with autism.

Previously I had worked at a school for boys with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Soon after arriving I was sent on a week’s course to become a tutor in restrictive physical intervention. The week after passing the course I stood in the school car park, rooted to the spot, laptop in one hand, lever-arch file in the other, as a Year 10 boy ran from one end of the car park to the other screaming that he was going to hit me. Despite my training, and, to his credit, his clear warning complete with expletives for added emphasis, I did nothing. I stood there honestly believing that nothing would happen. He then proceeded to punch me in the head. At least I didn’t drop the laptop.

In addition I have been bitten, kicked, spat at, had furniture thrown at me, had my lab trashed, been threatened by parents, had students die (including one double murder), had parents die (including one suicide) and had colleagues die. I am not an unusual case in having had that breadth of experience and some colleagues have fared worse. Having been through all of that my one school-induced visit to A&E was as a result of cutting my hand open whilst washing some glassware in my science lab before school one morning.

To the uninitiated these examples may paint a picture of special schools as places that barely resemble mainstream schools but that would be a mistake. The percentage of special schools graded as outstanding by Ofsted (35%) exceeds that of primary (17%) and secondary schools (22%) and PRUs (15%) with only early years’ providers (57%) bettering that figure. The pattern is also true for schools graded good or better.* Interestingly though special school headships remain the hardest of all to fill with over half of all vacancies having to be readvertised in the 2012-13 academic year.

* http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/latest-monthly-management-information-maintained-schools-and-academies-inspections-and-outcomes

Very few adults choose to work in a special school for an easy life and those that do don’t last long. Every student that attends a special school finds learning difficult by definition. They are challenging places to work because of the significant educational, social and health needs of the students and the demands that this places on the adults working in the school to make the environment orderly and ready for learning. Professionals, therefore, choose to work in special schools often because of a deep-seated desire to support those human beings for whom the world as it is today is a very difficult place for them to thrive. It is therefore vital as a leader to consider the toll that working in a special school can take on professionals. Staff will accept the challenge, relish it and rise to it if they feel that the systems are in place, suitable training is provided and the support is available when it is needed.

It is fair to say that, despite experiences such as those outlined above, I was slow as a Headteacher to tackle this issue. As a leader I have found the line between getting the best out of my colleagues and improving the school and overworking them to be very difficult to judge. There are some obvious indicators to staff welfare with absence being the prime one. Sir David Carter, the Regional Schools Commissioner for the South West, told me years ago that he could tell you all you needed to know about staff morale by looking at the staff absence data of a school. There’s obviously something in that. I am also reminded, though, that the current Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that, as a Headteacher, if staff were saying morale was at an all-time low, then you must be doing something right. I find that much harder to believe.

There’s more to it than staff turning up for work. In a special school they’ve got to be firing on all cylinders. There’s no place for my old Head of Department whom I worked for in a selective boys’ independent school, who told me proudly, “I talk to the students as little as possible and their work is up on the board. I have enough practical kit for them all to work individually and in silence.”

Once it became clear to me that I needed to pay closer attention to this issue I sought from staff their key needs in order for them to perform at their best. There are obviously many ways to do this but we chose the Diamond 9 method which prioritises needs with the most critical being at the top, the next most important in the second level, and so on. It was done during a training session on restorative approaches to resolving conflict that we use at our school. Staff were presented with approximately two dozen cards detailing various needs such as money, responsibility, promotion and some blanks to add their own. The results, detailed below, remain important to us two years on.

Staff well-being poster

At the end of the exercise I was conscious that this could be another activity that drifts off in to the ether never to be seen again. To prevent that I committed to reviewing our progress against these needs regularly. I also display the results around the school on that poster to ensure prominence and it also serves as a daily reminder to me and the other leaders in the school.

Prior to this our annual staff questionnaire was a somewhat dry and dusty document that sought the view of staff on matters about which I should already be aware such as student behaviour. This was undoubtedly fed by my mistaken desire, as a new Headteacher, to gather reams evidence for an Ofsted inspection.
Our staff questionnaire now asks what we do well and asks for suggestions for improvement in each of these nine areas. This information is of much greater value to the senior leadership team and gets to the heart of the matter rather than asking inane questions about homework. Within the next 12 months we will go through the process once again to see if the needs are still current.

In addition to focusing on those key areas we try to take care of the smaller details that contribute to staff welfare. We have a staff well-being committee, of which I play no part, that organises social events and charity fundraising opportunities. We provide flu jabs for staff and are looking at providing hepatitis jabs too after I was bitten earlier this year. There is free tea and coffee for the staff, obviously – why would a school not do that? The whole staff also took the decision to ensure we could all have one family day per year. Colleagues agreed to cover each other to allow staff to attend graduations, sports days, friends’ weddings and other events that school-based professionals often have to miss. I have been influenced in this by John Tomsett’s thinking on staff welfare in his own school (http://johntomsett.com/2012/09/28/this-much-i-know-aboutstaff-well-being/).

For my own part I focus much more now on effective communication with staff as this was something that I was not good at to begin with. We have daily briefings and I publish a weekly bulletin, which governors also receive (don’t forget governors’ welfare), and this is an ideal forum to praise colleagues and ensure recognition. I also publish a termly How Well Are We Doing? report containing the key performance information that is given to governors in my termly report.

Finally, don’t forget your own well-being – check that door handle before you come in from break duty.

This article was published on the National Education Trust website in October 2014 – http://www.nationaleducationtrust.net/ShapingIdeasShapingLives200.php