Innovative Practice - Safe 'portal'

A special educational needs unit that provides a sanctuary for severely disturbed pupils

The background

The original West Heath private school in Sevenoaks went into receivership in 1997 on the same day as the death of its most famous former pupil, Princess Diana. It was reopened as a special school in 1998, with funding from Mohamed Al-Fayed as a memorial to her and his son Dodi.

The New School at West Heath now educates pupils with a range of special educational needs, including many who have been severely disturbed or distressed. They include victims of rape, abuse and neglect, as well as some with obsessive disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. The school decided it wanted to create a safe "portal" for young people when they first arrived there.

The project

The school used a former castle on its grounds to create a unit called Heart. The unit is designed to have a calm atmosphere and be unlike a traditional educational establishment. Its furniture includes big sofas, heart-shaped cushions and cloud-shaped tables. The unit is also home to the school dog, Poppy, who staff believe plays a key part in helping the children to heal.

On arrival, pupils spend up to a month in Heart, where staff conduct observations and assessments to establish their needs and then design a personalised timetable for them, combining the national curriculum and therapeutic support. As well as being an arrival portal, the unit provides ongoing support for the young people at the New School and acts as a rapid-response unit should any of them break down.

The project has grown "organically", beginning with one counsellor and expanding to provide a range of services including cognitive behaviour therapy, play therapy and support for those with speech and language problems.

Tips from the scheme

Principal Christina Wells says that the best tip she can offer is for schools and authorities to visit Heart to see how it functions. Part of the school's objective as a charity, she explains, is to help organise visits, and she says anyone interested should contact the school. The scheme could also be seen to demonstrate the usefulness of celebrity backers - a #163;20,000 donation from Madonna helped get it going.

Evidence that it works?

With a record high in student numbers, the school has seen a 55 per cent reduction in problem behaviour incidents since the introduction of Heart. Last year, 40 per cent of pupils gained five A*-C GCSEs; 2010 also saw the school's best-ever A-level results.

Its 2010 Ofsted report found the school "outstanding" or "good" in all marking criteria, in particular flagging up this comment made by one of its older students: "This school is making my dreams come true."

The Project

Approach: Establishing a unit for traumatised children who are new to the school

Started: 2008

Leader: Principal Christina Wells

The School

Name: The New School at West Heath

Location: Sevenoaks, Kent

Number of pupils: 122

Age range: 11-19

Intake: The students have a range of special educational needs and disabilities. The majority have communication difficulties and several have additional behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. Three-quarters of the pupils are boys

Fees: From #163;26,877 to #163;46,122 per year, depending on age

Ofsted overall rating: Good.

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