The Conversation: Emotional support

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Ian Mikardo High is a special school that offers pupils a tailor-made curriculum based on principles of psychotherapy. Claire Lillis, the head, tells Victoria Neumark how it achieved 'outstanding' status
Ian Mikardo High is a special school that offers pupils a tailor-made curriculum based on principles of psychotherapy. Claire Lillis, the head, tells Victoria Neumark how it achieved 'outstanding' status

Q: How did you come to work in this area of education?

A: I was a mainstream history teacher who became disillusioned with how schools have to play the league-table game by excluding children in difficulties. In The TES one day I saw an ad: "Come and work with the country's most difficult children." I stayed at Medway Secure Training Centre for four years, becoming deputy director. Constantly reviewing the case files of children as young as 10, I kept noticing how they shared behaviour difficulties, school exclusion, crime. I wanted to try to prevent children entering custody. Once in the justice system, it's very hard to get out. So I applied for the headship at Ian Mikardo High.

Q: What state was the school in then?

A: In June 2002, the school was in special measures. With a succession of headteachers over a short period of time, staff were demoralised. The buildings were often vandalised. The only computers were bolted to desks. The roll was falling; attendance was around 67 per cent. I'd left a prison environment. I found this equally challenging.

Q: How did you approach change?

A: My priority was staff development and support. Such a high level of damage and distress and anxiety gets transferred along the line. In the custody setting, I had noticed how social workers and nurses had regular supervision: not line management but a chance to examine emotional challenges in work. I noticed that educational workers with no supervision, who were supposed just to go in and teach, coped so much less well. So I introduced our psychotherapist, to give us a professional space for reflection and response. Our senior leadership team of five meets with her for an hour a week as a group and an hour individually; every staff member sees her once a fortnight individually, once a week as a group.

Q: How does that work in practice?

A: It's central to our success - and we are successful - in our relationships; and relationships are key to education. The children determine the access they need to facilities and staff. I never feel unsafe because I know the pupils and they know me. I spend time with every child. But that's draining. They're very needy, so staff need emotional support.

Q: What about the curriculum?

A: We centre the curriculum on the child, on positive experiences. My Self covers music, art and design technology; My World, history, geography and science; My Future, enterprise, employment, post-16 and work experience; My Passports, literacy, numeracy and information technology; My Body, PE, PSHE, food technology and healthy eating; and My School, children's voice, school council and tutor groups. We have a hairdressing salon and a smoothie bar, both staffed by children. It works socially, emotionally and academically. Last year six of our seven leavers left with GCSEs.

Q: How do your staff manage the challenges?

A: We focus on relationships and positive adult role models. Our children come from poor relationships at home and on the street. Relating to them is as important as knowledge and skills. So we have a DJ, a hairdresser, a gardener and a designer, as well as qualified teachers. One of my deputies is a social worker, a knowledgeable advocate for our pupils with social services. We have a learning mentor for outreach with families.

Q: What is your behaviour policy?

A: There are no rewards or sanctions, no points and no detentions. It's all about conflict resolution. Children's behaviour often gets much worse before it gets better. If they don't feel secure enough to explore reading and writing, they will get frustrated and run around ripping things. We give them emotional support to achieve; and we prevent them going into custody.

Q: Did you change the environment?

A: We painted, threw out old furniture, cut the grass; but we did more. We made a pleasant dining area, put in sofas, a stage area and a proper studio to work with a DJ on mixing decks. We got rid of the old computers and installed an Apple Mac suite. People said they would be stolen or broken, but I said, "If you buy them the best, they will respect it" - and they have.

- Ian Mikardo High has 40 boys aged 11-16. In 2006, Ofsted called the school "outstanding".


Name: Claire Lillis

Age: 41

Job: Headteacher, Ian Mikardo High, Tower Hamlets, east London

Years in teaching: 14

Education: BA (Hons) history and politics from Leicester University 1988; graduate teaching training scheme, Essex University 1994

Work experience: Banking, 1988-1991; history instructor at an Essex comprehensive, 1991-93; head of year and history teacher, De La Salle school in Basildon, Essex, 1994-98; voluntary teacher, Jamaica, 1997-98; head of education and deputy director, Medway Secure Training Centre, 1998-2002; headteacher, Ian Mikardo High, from 2002

Awards: winner of the 2007 Teaching Award for urban leadership

Other interests: travel.

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