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“We’re Meant To Be A Revolving Door” – The Free School Striving To Give Children The Help They Need

Despite external obstacles, the progress made at Aspire Academy in its first year should inspire PRUs across the country, finds Lloyd Burgess...

  • “We’re Meant To Be A Revolving Door” – The Free School Striving To Give Children The Help They Need

A gaunt, unhealthy-looking boy with greying skin and purple bags under his eyes sits in the classroom. His head is shaved because he often has nits. The lines between the real world and the ones in his computer games are constantly blurred, and he has many issues with eating and drinking in school.

This boy’s needs may not be the most typical of the children at a Pupil Referral Unit, but it is a daily reality for the teachers of Aspire Academy.

Family dining

Principal Deb Garfield and head of primary Melanie Howourth started here in September 2014, when this alternative provision free school in Essex first opened its doors. The building in which it’s based was previously home to a pupil referral unit (PRU) that was in special measures for some time, before the local authority decided to close it. Aspire Academy was set up in its rather inadequate grounds, with no proper play area and primary classes held in a portable building.

Thankfully, the existing structure recently underwent a £2.5m overhaul which has seen the main building being refurbished and the imminent arrival of a new extension. “Mel and I were lucky to have a hand in the design, creating something that will really work for the children,” says Deb. “There are four classrooms, a couple of reflection rooms, a nurture room, dining room, cooking facilities and a nice big playground for them to run around in. We do a lot of work with primary and secondary together, so this makes that much easier.”

At Aspire Academy the staff emphasise a nurturing environment. The children eat breakfast together with the staff and lunch too, where students receive a hot meal regardless of whether or not they’re eligible for free school meals.

“Many had never eaten at a table or used a knife or fork before,” says Melanie, “so we try to teach them those sort of skills at lunchtime, as well as listening skills and table manners. In lessons, we use strategies such as time-out areas and scaling, asking them how they feel on a scale of 1-10, and what number they would need to reach to be ready to return to the classroom.”

“There’s just not the capacity”

Despite the good work being done at Aspire and in other PRUs up and down the country, there are obstacles that can make it difficult to give these children the help they need.

“It’s the waiting times,” says Deb. “A lot of our children need Education, Health and Care Plans, but it’s a 20-week process – which means they lose close to a whole school year while we’re finding the right provision for them, if we’re unable to meet their needs here.

“We work closely with the Statutory Assessment Service, and they’re doing wonders in helping us move children on to provisions that can provide the right level of support. One thing that’s been really successful is multi-systemic therapy – a whole-family intervention that tackles pupils’ issues both inside school and at home, but it’s hard to access. We can only use it to help a very small number of young people because there’s just not the capacity.”

“Ideally, there needs to be more support services available for the children to be able to access through school,” adds Melanie. “This would mean that issues or problems with children can be looked at as they arise. Teachers would be able to act upon advice and support, and the children would be able to access the support they need and learn strategies to help them cope.

“The majority of our children would benefit from counselling or additional help (such as anger management) but it’s often difficult to access the right support. Those that have access to CAMHS or similar services are often only offered it on a limited basis (eight sessions).

“This isn’t a criticism of any service – it’s just a simple fact that we need more of it.”

Time management

Rather than waiting passively in line, Deb and the team are developing their skills and training staff in different therapies. “It means we’re not having to wait or pay for services; we’re investing that money in staff instead,” says Deb. “Our new primary school teacher is forest school-trained, and we’ve already found this approach makes a significant impact on the social skills of our children. It’s something all 15 of them can access.”

Early identification of needs is the key – which is much easier when dealing with small groups of children in a class of around six to eight. Sometimes they can go unnoticed in classes of 25, which means action is not always taken to get them on the road to the care they need. Awareness needs to be raised as to how to identify and support children showing early signs of mental health issues.

“It’s our aim to offer outreach in the future,” says Mel. “Offering CPD for primary schools and supporting them in the One Plan process if they are finding the changes challenging. We will also advise, where we can, on behaviour management techniques – if requested.”

“The ideal outcome for us would be to close the academy because there are no children needing to come here,” says Deb. “But that’s unlikely when permanent exclusions in Essex primaries have increased dramatically.

“The problem is, we’ve become full. We’re meant to be a revolving door, but those doors are stuck – they can’t move because the level of need of some of our children is so high. Many have to be statemented when they come to us, which means they’re here for at least 20 weeks before we can get them the right provision, although this represents progress when compared to the 26 weeks it took before. And when it’s finally offered to them, there just aren’t always enough spaces.

“There needs to be a level of provision above us, so that we can be that revolving door that gets children back into mainstream education or into special schools where necessary – and there needs to be space available for them to actually go.”

Huge strides

Such services may be stretched and difficult to access, but progress is still being made. Over the course of a year, that gaunt-looking boy has made huge strides. He now brings in his own lunch box and drink. He speaks in full sentences and asks a lot of questions, which he’d never done before, and takes interest in things other than his computer games.

“While we’re proud of all of our students and their progress, his is the most notable,” says Melanie. “He’s doing a little project at the moment that he’s telling people about, asking them for ideas. He’s even making friends, playing with other children, and asking them to join in his game if they want to.”

With such great work being done despite some of the difficulties PRUs face, it should make people think about what could be achieved if help was at hand to iron these issues out. It should also give us the impetus to strive to get there.

Exit strategy

Which pupils are most likely to be excluded, according to Government statistics?
• Pupils with SEN, both with and without statements, account for seven out of 10 permanent exclusions
• Pupils with SEN without statements are around 10 times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion compared to pupils with no SEN
• Boys are around three times more likely to receive a permanent or fixed-period exclusion than girls
• While sample sizes are too small to draw many conclusions, pupils of Gypsy/Roma and Traveller of Irish Heritage ethnic groups have the highest rates of both permanent and fixed period exclusions
• Pupils of Black Caribbean and White and Black Caribbean ethnic groups are around three times more likely to be permanently excluded than the school population as a whole

For more information, visit aspire-academy.org

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