A celebrity backer, a dog and a little bit of 'Heart'

16th March 2012 at 00:00
TES's special school of 2011 offers a lifeline to traumatised pupils

Many children arrive at the New School at West Heath in Sevenoaks, Kent, having suffered serious trauma such as bullying, bereavement or illness. But the special school's dedicated staff, including a unique in-house team of therapists, help pupils to thrive and learn what Ofsted last month described as "exceptional life and social skills".

The New School's pioneering and painstaking work was recognised by judges at last year's TES Schools Awards, who named it special school of the year.

The school, which offers day and residential places, is supported by Mohamed Al Fayed, who bought the building in 1998 after the death of Princess Diana - it was the site of her former school. Mr Al Fayed then chose a small, council-funded unit for traumatised children, which was due to lose its funding, to take over the site, forming the New School.

The former Harrods owner does not charge rent and his daughter, Camilla, helps teachers with fundraising. The annual "Lawnfest" raises money for emergency placements. Last year, pop star Madonna attended the event and donated #163;20,000.

This kind of support allows principal Christina Wells to offer places to highly vulnerable children. "I take children from psychiatric units, and if I waited weeks for their local authority to agree funding they would be kept in there," said Ms Wells.

One current pupil is a 14-year-old rape victim. The girl suffered a mental and physical breakdown after her ordeal and had not spoken for five months when she arrived at the school.

"It was the worst case I have ever heard of; she was in such a distressed state," said Ms Wells. "But now she has made incredible progress. We measure success in children by the fact that they are ready to leave us."

Ms Wells said the school "dined out" on its TES Schools Awards win. "We are an independent special school. Times are very hard for schools like ours in this economic climate, but our numbers are the highest they have ever been," she said. "Local authorities, who pay pupils' fees, have really taken on board the fact we won, and parents have too. That's been great for us."

Teachers at the school want to enter the awards again this year, hoping that judges will be impressed with a new fostering service they have set up. It was developed because some parents did not want their children to return home at weekends, leaving teachers in the position of having to comfort children while trying to find them emergency foster placements.

When children first arrive at the school they spend time in the "Heart" unit, where they are assessed and start therapy. The unit has its own dog, Poppy, "the most exercised dog in the country", who children can walk when they feel upset. As they recover, they spend more time in lessons.

Teachers are adamant that pupils that will not study "namby-pamby" qualifications. They take GCSEs and A levels, and some go on to university.

"These children might have challenging lives, but they are not stupid," Ms Wells said. "It's very hard when you've suffered a real trauma to get back on with your life - you are emotionally broken.

"The children's well-being is our primary concern. If they are having a bad day, a member of staff will take the whole time with them to help them."

To enter your school to this year's TES Schools Awards before the 25 March deadline, visit www.tes.co.ukawards

In good company

This year's TES Schools Awards will raise funds for the charity Kids Company, which offers emotional and educational support to inner-city children.

Many of these young people live in poverty with little or no support from the adults in their family. They have often experienced abuse and may struggle with problems such as mental health issues, substance abuse and homelessness.

The charity provides holistic care through its drop-in centre in Camberwell, southeast London. Young people are given two free meals a day, have the opportunity to engage in a range of arts therapies and are offered sporting activities on site.

The aim is to support young people to fulfil their potential and lead positive lives.

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