Green shoots of school improvement:Learning from and with the vulnerable

Our background – why did we have so many?

In a world where education is now about market forces, and please I am not an economist, but my understanding is that market forces involve winners and losers and that the players are in competition. If we now believe that the free market and competition are the key to school improvement; it makes absolute sense for a head teacher to do their upmost to attract applications from the brightest and best of the cohort of students in an area. While working hard to minimise the number of applications of the weakest and most vulnerable.  Remember my first experience of schooling where the only school in the area had not attempted this and was therefore the sink school. The most vulnerable students take the longest to achieve and have the longest journeys to travel. They are less likely to succeed and therefore the least “wanted” in this system. While some head teachers might deny this, and avoid overt methods of detraction. It is happening on a daily basis. We don’t go around saying this as heads, but the market forces generate these impacts.  In a world where we can now be fired swiftly and frequently, why would we make our life harder, or the route to school success, longer? In my last section I argue that at the very least a buffer for the vulnerable needs to be placed around this market force system.

The school I inherited had never been Ofsted good, and existed within a catchment where the grammar school system continued to operate by default. The academy that had once been a grammar, tested pupils and maintained a reputation for selecting and receiving the brightest pupils. The house prices close to this school were considerably higher than across the tracks.  Thus the top end of pupil was creamed off and funnelled into this school. This is not unusual for county schools in a white working class area and the school and head were great. This meant if you weren’t considered successful at primary or you were low ability, your default position was to attend our school. We took far more second and third choices than comparison schools.

This left our intake heavily skewed towards the lower ability and middle group of students with a very, very small top end. When you unpick what are labelled our middle band, the majority only just reached the national average levels on entry. When you track data, nationally it is recognised that these are the hardest students to cross the magic C grade at GCSE.  To compound this situation there were too many places available to students within the locality, the area didn’t need all its schools. This meant that an already competitive situation was made worse, so that all schools were competing for student places and the competition left some schools over -subscribed while others like mine were under.



What happens when you aren’t a full school?

Where a school is under subscribed it is obliged to take every child that does not have a school place in the area, and the school does not have the right to refuse them. For my school it meant that a substantial proportion of poorly behaved students, either jumped to us prior to exclusion from another school. Or came to us post an exclusion. We had no choice but to take them. Within the County a system existed to apportion students within the areas, and there was some sharing but the buffer for a full school in rejecting or limiting the number of these students was dependent on whether you were full or not. In our school we had no buffer to receiving these students so significant numbers came to us in all year groups.

Initially on arrival the school had been granted an additional budget recognising the needs of these students and their ability to consume time and therefore resources, however over the first three years this budget disappeared. The available places in the area increased substantially, and numbers of students in the school dropped further. Our relative figure of applications compared to other schools increased but our actual number decreased.  Schools are funded on numbers of students attending therefore if you are not full as a school, you are not fully funded. Depressing, a market system needs sink holes, the losers, we were one of them but so were our most needy in society were losers to.

How our success with vulnerable students increased the numbers attending the school.

Our restorative justice system also began to work which increased our problem as our reputation for dealing with the most difficult students increased and more came to us. We became faced with significant numbers of these challenging students and families. Initially the school had received an additional budget in recognition of the proportion of challenging students that attended the school. However, as the austerity measures came this budget disappeared. The new Government also changed the definition of Special needs children squeezing out those presenting behaviour problems, as Special Need and again reducing the budget going to schools with substantial numbers of these children. Like everywhere else in the school we were left with little money to invest in this problem.

As a learning school we watched and worked with the students and families closely. It became clear that the most vulnerable were not able to cope in the mainstream, changing teachers, and expectations. Seeing different teachers each on an hour by hour basis was difficult for many of our students. Their basic literacy and ability to interact socially was exceptionally weak and couldn’t accommodate the timetable demands. At times with very little money to differentiate and support individual needs, a school can feel like a factory system, pushing students through a one size fit’s all curriculum. This is always the cheapest option but the least helpful for those with the most specialisms including gifted and vulnerable. These students were not going to make it through unless significant provision was put in place, this required additional staff, resources and time. The vulnerable consume resources.


How did we support the most vulnerable students with their behaviour?

Initially I met my twenty worst offenders at the start of my headship with their Parents. In order to get them to meet me at the beginning I informed them that I would not allow them into school until the meeting took place. These were, notoriously parents who refused to work with the school. This was exceptionally risky as no court of law would have backed my decision and if any of them had called me on this I would have had to of backed down. But they didn’t and I needed to send a warning signal to parents and students that their behaviour must change. At these meetings I outlined the behaviours that the child was representing on a daily basis. Most children’ files are twenty pages long these files had two to three arch files of listed poor behaviour. We then gave the families every opportunity to explore with us all the support that we could put in place to help. At the end we agreed an action plan involving all of us. Lastly I made it clear that if their behaviours did not change than I would exclude, and I would exclude as many as necessary to support the whole school change in behaviour. As a new Head you have an opportunity to exclude heavily if necessary as long as it has impact, but this can’t continue year on year. *

Over the course of the next 6 months we lost half of the students. Within the next year and half the new behaviour system kicked in and the extreme instances began to reduce, however the most vulnerable and poorly behaved students were still huge in number and consumed our beleaguered resources. Within it classroom a third of the students were volatile. Our deficit and small intakes were having a continued impact on our finances. Worst of all receiving so many of these students consumed our time and resources due to the nature of their needs and their difficulties mainstream just wasn’t going to work and we needed an alternative.

If these students were evenly spread in the system of schools would it have made a difference? Yes, I think so. I believe all schools have various tipping points, and how many really vulnerable poorly behaved students they can cope with is one of them. If they are designed and funded as a mainstream school, there is no recognition of the consumption of resources. Great staff can manage two or three exceptionally vulnerable just in each classroom, but when this becomes a third and beyond, there isn’t enough of a member of staff to go around. At times these were the figures my teams were having to cope with. Even through restorative justice countered behaviour for our most extreme this wasn’t enough. Sending them from one class to another was not working.

How did we improve the situation and manage such a significant number of these students?

Our alternative arrived in a small package, a mathematician and autistic individual who was exceptional with the most vulnerable and poorly behaved students. On walking into my office, my Deputy and I would not let her leave until we had persuaded her that we were the school to fulfil her dreams of making a difference to the most vulnerable! A very silly idea!

She was amazing. Autistic herself, I found her one of the hardest human beings I have ever had to communicate with. Her social graces non- existent, and her ability to say exactly what she was thinking at any time, constant. Whilst a refreshing change at time this had the ability to alienate her with staff. Her ability to nurture staff was not in her skill set.  She was impossibly stubborn and like her students she consumed our resources but the impact was substantial.

Within the school she set out a programme of change that supported the most vulnerable to exclusion. We ran 6 , 8,9 and 11 weeks programmes of with drawl from mainstream, to project based learning . All students covered emotional literacy and were assigned a mentor. This teacher recruited a team around her of support workers. Ingeniously she also invited and received a number of voluntary teachers from within the school. Who came to the programme to teach projects and or literacy and numeracy, this included the leadership team. The programme required parents to attend both the introduction and the graduation and to stay in daily contact with the team, these were the parents that were our hardest to reach and the task was mammoth in the beginning. If we were going to support these students we had to support their parents also if the changes were to be substantive and long lasting.

Over the 4 years that this programme existed it had a phenomenal impact in reducing the numbers of students who were excluded and it began to breed its own success where we saw ex-students return to support other younger students who were facing the same challenges. While we did not rescue all we moved from 4 of the 8 on the first programme making it through school with us, to 5 or 6 in each cohort. When I unpick what really made a difference the crucial element seems to be the ability for the team to build trust with these students so that they genuinely began to trust that we would listen to them and support them. They needed consistency more than anyone. Post this programme the door of communication was always open. The teacher told all of us the programme would never be a magic wand to cure all but if students are talking with us we stand a chance of supporting them through their future mistakes and successes.

A further advantage of this programme was that when we sadly had to ask a student to depart the school after the Change programme had failed to have significant impact on their behaviour. Our body of evidence of school support and our strong relationship with the families meant that our exclusions were never challenged. In fact, the County behaviour team remarked on the way our parents shook our hands and recognised the significant work that had gone in, even though their child was being permanently excluded.

What did I learn from this special programme?

Adults that have experienced similar issues often work best with troubled children. This teacher had lived a number of the experiences of the students and had a deep insight into what they were experiencing. More than that she had taken the journey in altering her behaviour in order to exist and more than that succeed, in environments that she found ultimately challenging.  While not all were autistic many displayed the debilitating outcomes that this condition can bring on an individual. Extreme anger, an inability to express one- self which compounds the anger, an inability to read social situations, a feeling of isolation and at times hopelessness.

Alongside our lead I have learnt that if you want to bring the most disengaged parents on swiftly then recruiting from within their parent body is also exceptionally helpful. We were so lucky to recruit a wonderful parent who had been a psychiatric nurse. She became our key counsellor on the programme. As a member of the local community who had experienced a significant amount of challenge in her life, she could make the connection with the hardest to reach parents that we often failed to.  She also created a beautiful balance between the Leads hard line and her ability to empathise.

As an autistic person the Lead was clear that boundaries were not for her area, she wanted clear, hard and fast rules and this over time worked with the students. However, I would not bend on the consequences having flexibility and this worked. For our most vulnerable they needed a really rigid regime to work with, but if they were unable to meet that regime in the beginning we need to consider all the circumstances surrounding that situation before deciding on a consequence. Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly many of our success stories chose the armed forces, police and or services with strict regulations as a career, they needed a strong regime to support them.

Through- out all of our work, fear was never an influencing force, however utter determination and very strong follow through had to be core. These students needed to know we meant what we said.


Special people – the use of student role models within the school to transform behaviour

In a school where learning rests at the heart of all that you do then in seeking out your role models for others to aspire to, you are not just looking for those that began as a success and remained as a success. Actually some of the most inspiring and transformative role models are those that made a journey. You need to generate the “if they can do it, so might I” mentality. In changing the behaviour and ethos of a school role models are essential. Students are always far more ready to learn from their peers than they are from an adult. Those older students that can be matched carefully to an individual with a similar set of issues that they have themselves experienced and conquered are invaluable.  I have outlined just 3 out of the numerous role models that we capitalised on.

Student number 1, came through a regular route into our year 10-year group at the end of a Summer term. He was a student from an ex grammar whose behaviour had led to him being at huge risk of permanent exclusion. He had been working with the local authority to calm his behaviour.

His Mum arrived with three of his six younger male siblings in tow, to a meeting to discuss his behaviours. During the meeting I restrained my PA from imploding at the comment the Mum made that she had done her bit for society by having 7 boys all living off the state. Mum seemed relatively honest and upfront, about the issues and what I really liked about the student was so was he.

We made the decision as a group that he would repeat year 10, a tough decision for him as he was street wise and mature, but a necessity. Fortunately, he was small so he would not stand out. He was placed on a heavy monitoring and support with the change programme. Over the year and half, A came close to exploding on several occasions. His sense of injustice was huge and if a teacher failed to follow the behaviour policy or not listen to him. Explosions were always close to hand. Like a previous student mentioned he has the innate ability to argue the hind leg off a donkey. Slowly we built his trust and slowly we were able to help him to see two sides of the story. The restorative justice system was so supportive here in using reason and understanding to change behaviour. This was an intelligent angry boy who needed both. In year 10 he took the opportunity given to him to attend a cadet school as one of the first cohort of students. He blossomed under the regime and became a great role model for other. This student became an advocate for restorative justice and the school, and after training he was used as a mediator with a number of students who came to us with significant issues. An essential ally to the new school system who acted as advocate for late entry year 9’s and 10’s, it was fabulous to watch him succeed.

Student E came from a well- known family in the local area, she had an older sister who had failed the system and was heading in the same direction. Her Dad was a single Parent who was passionate about his children but lacked the capacity to support them in education. He was frustrated and often aggressive and this aggression had been mirrored in his offspring. This student’s temper was exceptional, and her move to violence swift and regular. She was struggling to read and communicate. The change programme, took this individual under their wing, the harsh but clear regime had significant impact on her. She thrived with the rules. The emotional literacy gave her time, and an opportunity to talk out her anger.

The additional literacy suddenly opened up her world to communication. She blossomed and in seeing her do this, her Parent came onside and began to trust us. Her change gave her younger siblings opportunity and the family succeeded within the education system. She became one of our strongest role models after training. A huge support to female students experiencing similar problems. Advised never to deal with problems alone but to bring them to us, she became trusted and respected in the school community.

Student B had significant but high functioning autism and at key stage 3 he had a frustrated and torrid experience, constantly rubbing up against teachers and combatting everything. We have discovered that autistic students once set on a path way can’t get off of the train of thought and this can be particularly damaging in behaviour. For example at the beginning of a conflict situation a teacher steps away from the behaviour system and does something not within the code (perfectly admissible) but not in the code. The student then can’t let go of this, and is angry and behaves poorly. The teacher is then trying to address the poor behaviour which escalates, but the student is still stuck in the thought process of the initial incident and can’t get off this train! Disaster in motion!

I think this student experienced this situation regularly. He never backed down and would often tell a very different story to the one the teacher was portraying. Mum was supportive of both the school and her son, but often and understandably felt torn.

Over the summer holidays in year 9 this student alone made the decision to change his response and behaviours. We did very little. He worked incredibly hard at the change and supressed his anger and emotion, it worked. With no more exploding events, he began to get onto a pathway of praise and this praise kept the pathway going. Having approached him on several occasions to express how pleased I was to see the transformation and how inspired we all were. He agreed to support other autistic children after training; in helping them to make the same leaps with a significant degree of success. He knew more than we did as to how to help.

Special people on the increase are we ready?

There is a significant amount of evidence that the number of students now coming through with defined special needs particularly in autism and ADHD is on the increase and this is absolutely the case in the school I was head of. We always received above the average challenging behaviour but in the last 7 years this behaviour is changing it is very rarely sheer defiance.

Alongside this we are seeing an increase in identified mental health issues, depression, anxiety, paranoia etc. At the same time the public funds are shrinking for support for these individuals and with services shutting in ancillary support services ie educational psychologists are a disappearing breed. More and more of the support needed for these students is being channelled into schools.

If you consider that the pressure to support this growing need is being funnelled into sink schools, who often are not full and therefore are without the funds to support the students. The situation is worrying and seems to be a reverse of what I always thought our state was for. Fund and support the most vulnerable.

My learning: Building trust through time and consistency is key to supporting special people. Currently our system funnels these students into schools with the least funds to support them. Students who have successfully turned around their learning and behaviour can act as superb role models for younger students.

*The then new Government swiftly introduced a new procedure, any permanently excluded child’s education is now the responsibility and ownership of the school. Therefore, as a full school I could exclude a child, they entered my school where we had no choice to take them in year 10, 14, we would work with them for a year or so, giving them significant support, they wouldn’t make it through, due a significant incident and I would have to permanently exclude. Their results would become part of how the school was judged and the funding for a county placement became the responsibility of my school to pay. Please note these placements for excluded pupils are very expensive. We were very lucky in our county these enforcements of payment were not put into practice I believe they realised the impossible situation that sink schools faced!

*Please note every couple of years we hear about the armed forces arriving to control our students and sort out the behaviour of the school. For those students in chaotic situations at home, shouting and aggression are the last thing you want to bring to the table. Actually I keep my faith in guilt, the power of silence and the power of internal guilt are exceptional motivators for accepting one’s poor behaviour and moving it forward.

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