Education is our therapy
New Rush Hall school, a day special school in the London Borough of Redbridge for children aged 6-16 with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, is one of 12 special schools invited by the Department for Education and Skills to bid to be "trailblazer" specialists from September.
Special schools are already eligible to apply for specialist status, offering a curriculum subject, for example, art or technology, as their specialism. But trailblazer schools will focus their specialism on an aspect of special needs education, such as communication, behaviour or sensory and physical needs.
In return for sharing their expertise with mainstream schools committed to furthering inclusion, trailblazers will receive pound;100,000 in capital funding, plus pound;60,000 a year to spend.
New Rush Hall's proposed specialism is behaviour. "Behaviour is what we do more effectively than the average school," says John d'Abbro, the headteacher, who spent time in a residential emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD) school as a boy. He takes an intensely compassionate view of his pupils' difficulties. "If you can't get on with yourself and with other people then I think you have a disability," he says.
The school occupies the lower floor of a 1930s brick building, set in generous grounds. It has 51 full-time pupils, as well as eight part-time pupils who attend mainstream schools for some of the week.
"We have some of the most disturbed children in East London," says d'Abbro.
Boys far outnumber girls, and typically are children "who have not learnt to manage their feelings - the only way they can make sense of their pain is to make other people feel bad".
New Rush Hall gives them a chance, and equips them, through education, to cope with life. "It's about giving children unconditional positive regard," says d'Abbro. "My behaviour as a youngster was not OK, but I was an OK person."
The school is particularly well placed, he believes, because it functions as part of the New Rush Hall Group. This comprises a behaviour support outreach team, Key Stage 3 and 4 pupil referral units and an adolescent psychiatric unit; early years provision in a local primary is being developed. D'Abbro says this model, which has arisen over the past five years, "means we make sure the right children are in the right place".
The outreach team works in mainstream schools supporting staff and pupils, and acts as a conduit, identifying children who may benefit from time at New Rush Hall, as well as preparing the way for New Rush Hall pupils ready to rejoin the mainstream, either full or part time. Almost all New Rush Hall pupils have some form of mainstream experience, whether this is one or two visits a term, or two days a week.
Signs of success so far, says d'Abbro, are the low numbers of Redbridge children in residential EBD schools, and the fact that New Rush Hall scores extremely well in the county's value-added tables - coming third after two grammar schools. Ofsted deems the school good value for money.
Specialist status would enable the school to build a new training centre, to be used by parents, teachers and other professionals. "It would also help improve public perception of the school and bring about more inclusion," says d'Abbro.
HOW RUSH HALL WORKS
Pupils at New Rush Hall spend the greater part of their day, like their mainstream peers, working at the national curriculum.
"We are a school, and education is our therapy," says Maureen Smyth, head of school. She hopes that visitors who come in expecting to find children swinging from the rafters will be surprised by the atmosphere of calm that reigns almost all the time.
There are moments when children lose control, and, occasionally, they need to be physically restrained. But firm boundaries, a clear structure, and an emphasis on consistency keep eruptions to a minimum.
"When you first meet some of these children, it can take a while to find their lovely bits, but there is something lovely about them all," says Elaine Lopez, Year 3 teacher. "I start from the positive, noticing everything they do that is OK, and going over the top about it. It's all about keeping calm, being consistent and finding the positive."
The school is divided into primary and secondary, and the children are taught in groups no larger than eight. The outreach team has a base here, and there is a school counsellor readily available to parents, staff and children. Twelve learning support assistants help in the classrooms, as well as accompanying children when they go to mainstream schools. A literacy specialist is on hand to identify and help children with learning difficulties that may be contributing to their behaviour problems - and the assistants lend support here, too.
"For all the times you get exasperated, you do end up forming really good relationships with the children," says Jan Kirkham, an assistant in Years 5 and 6, who is encouraging literacy development through use of an interactive whiteboard. "The satisfaction of the job is that you feel you are going to make life a little bit easier for them in the future - and literacy is such a key to that."
Periods one-to-five of the school day are curriculum-based lessons, including opportunities to dance, swim, cook and even horse-ride. Period six is "team challenge", a much-enjoyed session of sports, quizzes, or other co-operative games for all those who have managed their day reasonably well. For those who haven't - perhaps through lapses in behaviour or rudeness to staff - period six is a catch-up session to make sure no one gets behind with their work.
Lapses in behaviour are always apologised for: the school has a culture of "reparation". Staff constantly and calmly make sure children understand what they do that is wrong and what they need to change; and slowly the children learn how to make better choices next time.
"This school helps me with my work, and it helps me with behaviour, it calms me down," says Briken Kola, a personable 14-year-old from Kosovo. "I get into trouble for swearing, and then I write a letter of apology to the teacher. They are polite, they show a lot of respect. I have made a lot of friends here."