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Right up to standard

Neil Merrick on how a management standard has helped staff at a school for autistic children. Three years ago staff at The Loddon School in Hampshire were asked to write down everything they did at work. By recognising the numerous procedures which were used within the residential special school, they were able to review the way the school was run, give each member of staff a personal development plan and achieve the quality management standard BS5750.

Loddon is an independent residential school for autistic children in Basingstoke. Its 22 pupils, aged eight to 19, all have severe and profound learning difficulties. It is staff intensive - the 120 workers include just eight teachers, but there are 14 teaching assistants, more than 60 care workers and other supervisory and administrative staff. At times up to six staff may be required to supervise one child.

The analysis of procedures has helped to improve the quality and range of teaching, with the day-to-day care provided for children. Each member of staff was first asked to write down what they did as part of their job before being observed at work by their colleagues.

"It's easy to buy a system and then work to it," says principal Marion Cornick, who opened the school six years ago. "Instead we looked at what we were doing and asked whether it met the requirements of BS5750."

The school did not set out to change anything - but putting its procedures under the microscope has resulted in continual improvement. The resulting documented and structured system means teachers receive better support and newly-appointed staff find it easier to become acquainted with the school.

Five key process were identified: staff management and development; child development and education; residential life; parent liaison and welfare; and environment and administration. A task force was set up to identify the main practices within each process.

"As we went through we could see the way that things were happening," says Mrs Cornick. "We wanted to ensure consistency of practice and that everybody had training. It helps for everyone to give the same message to children for whom communication is such an important issue."

The review of child development and education coincided with the introduction of the national curriculum. Staff were looking at ways of following the different subject Orders while attempting to interest and teach children whose learning problems mean that they are unlikely to reach even level one of the national curriculum.

Following the review, it was agreed to give teachers a non-contact day once every six weeks to help with curriculum planning. All teachers have been allocated subject responsibilities within the curriculum.

Activities such as bathing children and taking them to the toilet are essential parts of residential life. The school now has agreed procedures which must be followed by staff to guarantee privacy for pupils as well as complying with legislation such as the Children Act.

Once the school had decided to try and achieve BS5750, it appointed a firm of outside consultants. Charmian Martin of Quality Management International, a former teacher, visited the school about once a month to explain the standard and oversee the documenting of procedures.

Sue Anderton, head of Loddon's junior department, says the consultant ensured staff focused on each area of the standard and had its relevance to different activities within the school explained. "It was like a large ball of knotted-up string. We had to untangle the string and put each piece in the right department," she says.

Where deficiencies were identified, the fact that changes had been suggested by staff rather than managers meant they were more likely to receive widespread support.

The Loddon School achieved BS5750ISO9000 in June. Mrs Cornick says it was important that the school received recognition at a time when local newspapers were publishing exam league tables which not surprisingly showed Loddon firmly at the bottom. "We have a lot of young staff aged 20 to 25. They need support in their work and should not be made to feel that they are bottom of the pile."

The process of achieving the quality standard has also meant the school focuses on the need for improved training and personnel development. Loddon has its own training department, headed by Janet Bromley who is also the school's quality manager. Each member of staff is given a personal development plan which is regularly updated by the training department.

The department also ensures staff follow correct child protection procedures and are aware of vital regulations such as how to deal with hazardous materials.

During a visit to the United States, Marion Cornick and other staff learnt about new techniques used in the physical management of children. The school has adopted a peaceful restraints approach - Strategies for Crisis Intervention and Prevention - and passed them on to teachers at other special schools through courses organised by its training department.

Ten care workers are currently working towards National Vocational Qualification level two in care, while a further four are preparing portfolios before registering. The school has four trained assessors and three internal verifiers.

Mrs Cornick says the school is a firm supporter of NVQs but has been disappointed at the response of others. "Nationally things are going at a slow rate. We wanted to gallop," she says. Loddon is planning to set up as an NVQ assessment centre by forming a consortium, Loddon Valley Training, with other schools and residential homes.

All staff are invited to suggest changes by filling out a comment form. Since they were introduced six months ago, 38 new ideas have come forward and are being considered by senior managers. "If there is a better way of doing something we will review and change it," says Mrs Cornick. "Nothing is cast in stone forever."

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