Keeping children in the classroom (or at least in the school building)

Temple Hill has been developing a provision to support the most challenging pupils who face complex social, emotional and behavioural needs. In an effort to shelter these pupils from permanent exclusion, creating a provision that does not at the same time exclude these pupils from their peers has been high priority. Developing positive learning behaviour and social skills, even for those individuals with significant complex behavioural, emotional and mental health needs as well as safeguarding concerns, help this provision take form.

Facing the ‘under-performing’ stigma

Temple Hill Primary was considered an under-performing school in one of the most deprived areas in the country (Dartford) for over a decade. Joining the school as a new head it quickly became apparent that the school and community had been tarnished with a stigma that they didn’t deserve – it was drowning them like a fly in sticky amber. People often lived up to the self-fulfilling prophecy as a result. The first year at Temple Hill was the toughest I have faced.

The surrounding settings and professionals from all sectors viewed our school as an outcast relative. It became very clear that help would be limited in seeking the support needed for some of the most volatile children and families I had ever encountered in my 13-year career. Local schools would not take our children on managed moves due to the school’s reputation. Professionals were reluctant to enter the building, or even the area, and were often able to give us little or no help. As well as this, we never knew who would be attending our school from one day to the next, which made us extremely vulnerable due to our low numbers.

Accepting the challenge and fighting for change

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Sometimes when you seem to have nowhere to go you have to look inward and try something different. We had nothing to lose, we were ostracised by everyone outside of our small trust and no one in a 13-mile radius had faith in what Temple Hill could achieve. We had nothing to lose as far as our reputation, but we were aware that as a team, we needed to create something special and substantive for the children who had no place to go beyond our school. When starting to change a culture in a school, sometimes you must be blunt! What had been done in the past hadn’t worked, so I rewrote the basics.

Implementing new courses of action

Recording incidents on blue paper: Silly as it may seem, this first step began our momentum. Children are visual and tactile little beings, particularly pupils with social and emotional mental health needs. Blue became our colour for behaviour, and we tracked incidents with passion as a leadership team, empowering all staff to be involved in the change of tide. Children sat alongside an adult when completing a blue form and had to explain the incident when they were ready and calm. These were all logged and summarised and children quickly learned if they had three blue forms in a short term, their parents/carers would be called in and the forms would go onto their report card (yes, a blue one). This was overseen by a member of SLT who would effectively adopt these children for six weeks or longer, coaching and mentoring them. Blue forms have evolved over the past two years. As a school, we read: “When the adults change, everything changes”. Now, children complete the form themselves (annotated by an adult if needed) and decide how to resolve the issue with the support of an adult. Pupils also choose what, if any, repercussions there should be. Now, children complete the behaviour form themselves (annotated by an adult if needed), and decide how to resolve the issue with the support of an adult.

The lifeboat: After the blue form system became a recognisable feature of our behaviour strategy, we realised that we needed to come up with another idea that would free up some SLT time. We were regularly having 20+ children follow us around all day or sit in our offices. While the blue forms were great, we still had children being sent out of class because they were disrupting learning, all while our school size increased towards 900. The 20+ children previously mentioned were the usual suspects, but it was evident they needed somewhere to go and that they responded best to the relationships they were forming with key adults around the school, like SLT and learning mentors. They wanted and needed to belong to someone and to some place.

This is how the lifeboat was created. The name was not a coincidence – we needed a place that children could go to which was safe, always open and formed part of developing the skills that helped the self-regulation of their behaviour. The lifeboat was always manned and although in a worn-down space in the school, it met the needs of our children. Of course, there were rules:

  • Children needed to articulate to their class teacher before they would explode that they needed time out – either verbally or with a token left on the teacher’s desk.
  • The teacher or lifeboat staff (SLT or learning mentor) needed to communicate to ensure the child arrived at the lifeboat.
  • The space had to be respected and could be used for rewards, time out, or just a quiet space, all of which had a time limit to ensure the children stayed part of their class and didn’t opt out.
  • A register was kept to ensure a monitoring system was in place to track which pupils were using the resource.

Now, I need to mention that before we had the lifeboat, we had several high-profile children who made it their daily mission to try and escape the school grounds. This kept us all rather fit and meant that I quickly spent a hefty amount on walkie-talkie radios. However, now that they had the lifeboat to run to, incidents of their Houdini acts dropped significantly. Before we had the lifeboat, we had several high-profile children who made it their daily mission to try and escape the school grounds. This kept us all rather fit I had previously mentioned that no one would take our children. This is still the case, but now it is because our provision is recognised as one of the best in the area and other schools can’t match it. We have created an internal manage move protocol as a result. We became a victim of our success, and that’s not something I am sad about. However, it meant that we had to think outside the box again to make provision for pupils who are too ‘extreme’ to stay in a mainstream classroom for the safety of themselves and other pupils. This was supported by our CEO and governors, and with their support, we were able to develop a self-funded space called Beacon, within our ‘lighthouse provision’. It isn’t easy for anyone who works in there. It is a highly demanding room to work in, with pupils who have complex mental health and social needs often overlapping with significant safeguarding concerns. There is an immense amount of supervision, chocolate and hugs dished out to the staff who choose to work in this space and their level of expertise working with these challenging children is unmatched. It is, without doubt, a labour of love, as specialist settings are oversubscribed and some of the pupils within our provision are too volatile to be accepted. But this is what good schools do when you have exhausted the local offer.

‘Good’ Ofsted outcomes and the school’s future

So, did all this work? Did the time and money make an impact? The simple answer is yes. In June 2019, Temple Hill achieved a G ‘good’ from Ofsted for the first time in over a decade. We knew we were good before Ofsted came. We could see the impact of our strategic approach, but we were well aware that the community needed the rubber stamp as validation. If you think back to your NQT year when hopefully you had a good mentor, they may have given you the same advice that I had when I was a fresh-faced teacher of 30 six-year-olds: you can’t teach anything if you don’t have a grasp on behaviour first. It’s the same with a school, whether its 1-form entry or 4-form like Temple Hill. When we put the systems in place, staff were able to teach again. They were able to be colourful in their practice, experiment, enrich and engage instead of trying to keep a lid on a bubbling pot. It meant that because of the support of their colleagues, teachers and teaching assistants were willing to go the extra mile on provision in the classroom and to never give up on an individual. It’s the reason why, no matter what provision pupils attend within the school, they still have a home class of other pupils, who they visit and who visit them. It is still not easy to work at Temple Hill, and it is not a school that everyone would want to work in, as we still have our challenges. We have higher than national PPG, FSM, SEN and EAL – and yet this year we achieved above national combined in KS2 SATs.

There were and continue to be many barriers and challenges:

  • Money, as for all of us in schools, has been a huge barrier and constant juggling act.
  • Working with agencies that are stretched and have such high thresholds that significant concerns don’t receive support anymore.
  • Parental apathy, which can put pupils at significant risks.

Our biggest moral dilemma is that many of our pupils with the highest behavioural needs, who successfully manage at our school and at times achieve expected or higher outcomes, don’t complete the first year of secondary school successfully. Before blaming ourselves we need to remember that children spend only 15% of their time with us versus their home environment, which is the key to children’s success.

What next, you ask?

We want to continue embedding our practice – we are not looking for perfection, we just want to keep getting better and keep innovating. There is a full commitment to sharing what we have learnt and supporting others in challenging settings, who have challenging children and who may have faced isolation or closed doors to support. But mostly, we want to engage more in professional dialogue and debate, as it is very clear that childhood poverty and mental health are key subjects which need to be engaged with.

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