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How Children With SLCN Get Great Support At Aerodrome Primary Academy

With the right support, even children with severe communication difficulties can access mainstream education, says Jacob Stow – just look at what’s going on at Aerodrome Primary Academy...

  • How Children With SLCN Get Great Support At Aerodrome Primary Academy
  • How Children With SLCN Get Great Support At Aerodrome Primary Academy
  • How Children With SLCN Get Great Support At Aerodrome Primary Academy

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‘Children should be seen and not heard’ – was ever a proverb more inaccurate or unwelcome?

But while it’s tempting to dismiss such sentiments as products of a bygone age, that would be to ignore the growing evidence that more and more of this country’s children are struggling to communicate.

Whether it’s a symptom of society embracing technology at the expense of conversation, or a sign that we as adults aren’t so rid of the desire for domestic peace and quiet as we might pretend – or that we’re simply too busy to talk like we once did – is hard to say. But it’s a state of affairs that staff at Aerodrome Primary Academy in Croydon are acutely aware of.

“We used to rely on children coming to school speaking, but that’s not always the case now,” headteacher, Zoe Foulsham, tells us. “It’s increasingly a problem. Every year there are more cases of speech and language delay, and in some cases disorders. It’s the biggest need in Croydon today, and it’s been a hidden need for many years. It’s causing issues across the country.”

Zoe points to a range of contributing factors, including those touched upon above. But while prevention is always better than cure, Aerodrome’s response to the challenges their children face is a fantastic example of the impact that determined schools can have when faced with such issues.

So impressive has it been, in fact, that the school was named ‘Primary School of the Year’ at the 2015 Shine A Light Awards, which recognises excellent practice in supporting children and young people’s communication development.

We’ve set up the whole school for oracy,” says Zoe, summing up Aerodrome’s approach. “Everything we do, from early years all the way through, is based on talking.”

To back up that claim she can point to a host of initiatives that are making a difference in the classroom, as well as a dedicated Speech & Language Resource Centre. The latter was originally created to support those with specific needs, but is now also helping to disseminate excellent practice throughout the school. Even the learning environment has been resourced with the need to get kids chatting firmly in mind.

Challenging circumstances

Raised from the ashes of a special measures victim, Aerodrome is a relatively young school – Zoe took charge four-and-a-half years ago, not quite a year after it first opened its doors – and converted to an academy after receiving a ‘good’ from Ofsted in 2012, becoming a founding member of the REAch2 Academy Trust.

“There was lots of work to do when I arrived,” Zoe tells us. “Initially there were some behaviour issues and cohesion issues, in terms of bringing what was a new community at the time together. And of course, as with any new school that’s been through a turbulent time of change, you’ve got to bring a team together too.”

These early challenges have been successfully negotiated, in the main. Thanks to effective pastoral support, behaviour, Zoe says, is now fantastic, judged as ‘outstanding’ in a recent MTI inspection. An increased togetherness is evident in an already traditional cultural carnival, which celebrates diversity while embedding the school at the heart of the community. Perhaps most importantly, an established and multi-talented team focused on self-improvement is now in place.

But despite the successes, deeply rooted challenges remain. The diverse community Aerodrome serves means many children here have English as an additional language (EAL), while the proportion of children with special educational needs (SEN), and in particular speech, language and communication needs (SCLN), is well above the national average – as is the number of disadvantaged children.

“This is a really tough school in terms of the deprivation our children experience,” Zoe admits. “We have a job to do, in terms of teaching and learning, but we do it by having great fun, albeit fun with a huge amount of pace and rigour. How children respond to learning, how they feel about it is the most important thing. If they’re feeling positive, they’re likely to learn a lot more than if they’re being done unto.”

In keeping with those sentiments, there’s more than a hint of the early years about Aerodrome’s approach to teaching and learning, as well as a focus on developing independence, which Zoe stresses can be all too easily closed down by overly academic pedagogies.

And through everything runs the focus on oracy, addressing the real need in the school’s intake. It’s a focus that acquired considerable momentum early on in Zoe’s tenure with the creation of the school’s Speech & Language Resource Centre, AKA its ‘Enhanced Learning Provision Base’.

Specialist support

“We were asked to have the Base here by the local authority during my first year at Aerodrome,” Zoe explains. “I think they realised the school could do really great things because we had the right team in place, and after our Ofsted it was clear that we could really move forward with these children. Although it’s a fully integrated part of the academy, it’s funded by the LA and children come from all over Croydon.

“We only support a relatively small number of children with more pronounced speech and language difficulties. We have 17 at the centre at the moment (though there have been up to 19), which is based on adult ratios and what we can manage in terms of giving them the best support – but we’ve come to apply a similar approach to that used in the Base with all the children in our school.”

Those who come to use the Base itself benefit from a sizeable, open learning environment. “It’s not just an add-on room,” Zoe notes. This is very much in keeping with the aforementioned early years influence. A specialist team, led by assistant head Vicky Prigg, provide the support necessary to help individuals develop the skills they need to succeed in mainstream classrooms.

There’s no question of a ‘one size fits all’ approach, with each child receiving a bespoke curriculum tailored to their needs: “If a child is really strong at maths, for example,” Zoe says, “they might be taught that subject in the mainstream classroom while spending time in the Base to work on the communication skills. Of course that means that all of our staff have to be really skilled in teaching communication; we have to have a whole-school view on it.”

Within the Base, the focus is firmly on speaking and listening, with priority given to the development of functional language skills and the confidence needed for communication, while mums and dads are invited in to regular parents meetings, at which staff model specific strategies that can be employed at home.

Staff here regularly provide training to NQTs and students, too, aiding early identification and support strategies for pupils with SLCN within Aerodrome and other mainstream schools in the locality.

The flow of knowledge from the Base to other teaching staff is enhanced by the fact that specialists, such as Vicky and speech and language therapist Maxine Whitmore, are to be found working across the school, particularly in the early years, in an effort to minimise the impact poor communication skills have on children’s education. As a result, many strategies initiated in the Base are today benefiting children far beyond its four walls.

Classroom strategies

There’s no escaping the fact that oracy is a cornerstone of teaching and learning at Aerodrome. The focus on communication begins at the earliest point possible, even before children reach school age, thanks to the academy’s attached children’s centre, which hosts EAL groups designed to encourage language development through stories, songs and creative activities. This continues unabated until children leave in Year 6; much is targeted at those with SCLN, but all children are reaping the rewards.

In nursery, for example, ‘Bucket Time’ employs toys to teach prepositional language and develop the attention skills of children with severe SCLN. Later, in Reception, following screening for speech and language delay, those with the greatest need benefit from a ‘Just Arrived At School’ oral language programme.

There’s an awareness that time is of the essence, and that communication issues should not be allowed to slip. In Y2, children follow Pie Corbett’s popular Talk for Writing programme – which for the uninitiated, sees pupils learning and retelling well-known stories orally with actions, embedding the skills needed for writing. Older children with SCLN are able to join ‘Partners in Talking’ groups that are designed to improve confidence.

Certain strategies and techniques are employed on a school-wide basis. All teachers are expected to use basic Makaton symbols in the classrooms. Termly ‘No Pens Wednesdays’ see the whole school abandon writing implements in favour of speaking and listening activities – a non-negotiable edict enthusiastically enforced by the No Pens Wednesday police. Colourful Semantics and Shape Coding programmes are employed in turn to develop children’s grammar and grasp of sentence structure.

Phonological awareness is given a high priority from nursery onwards. Staff utilise a technique known as ‘Cued Articulation’, which unites sounds and gestures to help children learn where the sounds they are endeavouring to make ‘come from’.

“Kids can’t automatically make certain sounds, but by showing them where they come from, using gestures and vibrations, they very quickly grasp the understanding of sound that underpins our phonics,” Zoe explains. “When it comes to teaching phonics, they motor very quickly, as a result. Not all children get as much exposure to talk at home, and this gives them that sound solid base at school.”

Then there’s Communicate: In Print – a computer programme that produces instructions for children in pictures and words. “If there’s a task to do, there’ll be a sheet on the tables for children. It’s written in English, but at the top, the instructions are given pictorially as well.” Zoe tells us. “All year groups use it. Even the little ones can read the pictures right from the word go, but then Communicate: In Print supports them as they begin to look at the text as well.

“It’s fabulous for EAL children, but we also use it for behaviour and for ASD children on little signs which the teachers wear around their necks. It’s very intuitive.”

The list of communication-friendly initiatives goes on and on, and the emphasis on speech even extends to furniture choices – Zoe points to the circular tables in the school’s ICT suite, chosen to help children talk to each other, and the ‘pods’ installed in the Base’s playground, which stop children dispersing, leading to them sitting in a circle and having a chat.

When bestowing their prize, the organisers of the Shine A Light Awards noted that, “The school’s provision for SLCN pupils, while having a whole-school holistic approach for all pupils, is a strong example of how all pupils’ speech, language and communication needs can be integrated with success.”

The evidence to support that statement is overwhelming.

Independent learners

Aerodrome’s drive to develop independence goes hand in hand with its efforts to improve children’s communication, but has also led to fundamental changes in the way teachers interact with their students – as Zoe explains, it’s a change in part inspired by an ongoing lesson study programme…

We do very little whole-class teaching today. It’s mostly small group work, or split classes where two groups each focus on a different subject. Sometimes we’ll work in rotation – three groups, with, for instance, one doing history, one doing art and one doing writing.

We have a skills-based curriculum, and working in this way underpins independence, resilience, determination – all the things you want to see. Children have to be independent for this approach to work. They have to know what each task is, and that’s when your structures come in – your Shape Coding and Communicate: In Print. They read the instructions and know what they’re doing.

They can learn like that and feel fabulous afterwards, because they’ve done it themselves.

Meet the staff

Vicky Prigg, Assistant Head
“Historically, for SEN children in mainstream schools, independence hasn’t been great. Children become very reliant on having an adult sat next to them all the time. Long term that doesn’t do them any favours at all, but if you can scaffold it in the ways we’re using here. It supports their independence and self-esteem.”

Maxine Whitemore, Speech & Language Therapist
“Something we’ve been proud of is our work on helping teachers to identify speech and language difficulties early on. I think during their training programmes there’s very little emphasis given to that, and yet they could be faced with half a class having speech and language difficulties when their children enter at Reception. The more they know about identification and support, the better.”

Anna Woolston, Nursery Teacher
“Last year we had a number of children coming in with quite severe speech and language difficulties. They weren’t really able to cope with the nursery setting, but we have two indoor rooms, so we decided to make one into a nurture space for them. We set it up completely differently, and planned separately for that space to include more speech and language activities.”

Katie Barrett, KS2 Teacher
“I really enjoy lesson study – you identify something you want to investigate as a group, then plan a lesson that one of you teaches and the others watch. Afterwards you come up with some ‘What went wells’ and some ‘Even better ifs’. You repeat that process three times, and by the end you have some really solid findings in answer to whatever you were questioning.”

Pupil Voice

“‘Aerodrome’s Got Talent’ is a really big part of the school. Lots of children love getting involved. There’s also a joke-telling contest. Our clubs are really fun too. When you go there, it’s like you’re family and you get to work together as a team.”

“We do a lot of group work. Most of the time you work on your ‘home table’, but sometimes we get paired up with people who may need help, or who can help you. We work as a team to help each other out.”

“We do something called ‘rotation’, which is when we work in three separate groups, with a teacher working with one of those groups. We do it over the course of two days. It gives you a lot more options about what you’re learning.”

For more information, visit www.aerodromeprimary.co.uk or follow @aerodromep

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