Fearless and ambitious: why Springfields succeeds

17th August 2012 at 01:00
We take a look inside the TES outstanding school of the year

Scotty Price arrived at the Springfields Academy unable to concentrate or control his behaviour. He barely talked and would bite and hit teachers because he was so anxious.

Now the 14-year-old, who is autistic, sits in assembly, listening quietly. He has made great strides in his studies and has learned to do things that other children take for granted, such as using a knife and fork, and riding a bike. The progress that Scotty has made is considerable - but he is just one of many children whose lives have been changed by staff at Springfields, which was named the outstanding school of the year at last month's TES Schools Awards.

Many pupils at the academy in Calne, Wiltshire, have had to leave at least two other schools because of their behaviour. They suffer from a wide range of problems, including obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, anxiety, attachment disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They also have emotional difficulties, as well as complex home lives: a third of pupils are in care.

But despite the manifold difficulties, teachers are unrelentingly ambitious for their pupils; a mindset that gets results. Although many pupils have very poor literacy skills when they arrive at the school, 40 per cent of last summer's GCSE cohort achieved five A* to C grades, including English and maths, or equivalent.

Scotty now excels in maths and ICT and recently won a school award for the progress he has made - as he is hypersensitive to noise, other pupils gave him the thumbs up rather than clapping when he received his prize.

But the school, based in an old manor house, is about more than results. Outdoor learning is taken so seriously that having a 100-acre farm is not enough. Children have been taken on expeditions to the Arctic and Africa, challenging trips that will leave them with memories for a lifetime (see box, page 22).

Springfields has between 90 and 100 full-time boarding pupils at any one time, plus a further 500 pupils who come to the school for a short period to improve their behaviour or to take vocational courses.

Children live in one of four houses, named to fit in with the school's spirit of expedition - Olympus, K2, Ridgeway and Snowdon. There is very little downtime from the moment they are woken up by staff at 7am until bedtime.

After school they take part in an enrichment hour, which includes activities from quad biking to bingo. After dinner, known as high tea, the pupils participate in more activities with their housemates, which could range from a planned walk to practising how to use a bus.

The houses have a family atmosphere and children do all the things they would do at home - watch television, play music and help stack the dishwasher.

As pupils get closer to leaving school in Year 11 they spend less time boarding and more time with their families. They also do a work placement one day a week for two years to help them make the transition to the adult world, although starting a vocational curriculum is not easy for children with complex social and emotional problems.

"They are very nervous about using knives and the heat in our professional kitchen," said catering tutor Michael Collom, who previously worked in Michelin-starred country house hotels. This trepidation does not last. Before long pupils are preparing lunch for the other children and catering for school functions.

Pupils get specialist services, such as occupational therapy and counselling, on tap; at mainstream schools they often have to wait months to be seen by experts. Staff also provide support for bereaved families living locally.

"The referral time for specialist services can take weeks," headteacher Trystan Williams said. "When you have children with issues like that they need to be seen within 48 to 72 hours. We can provide an instant, reactive service."

Mr Williams knows that a school like Springfields needs a special staff. He employs people with strong personalities, describing them as "fearless". That is certainly what you get with a team that includes former members of elite military units.

Julian "Taff" Williams is part of the pastoral team that helped Scotty. As a soldier, he transported explosives in Iraq and he subsequently worked as a private bodyguard in the country. His talent for getting the best out of young people was spotted by the headteacher, who saw him coaching rugby.

The former solider left his well-paid private security job because he wanted to spend more time with his family. He does not care that he now earns far less, he said, because he feels fulfilled working with the young people and has worked particularly closely with Scotty. "It's the best job ever," he said.

Trystan Williams took over the running of the school in September 2005 when Wiltshire Council wanted to close the boarding houses and move it to a smaller site in the county.

Following a fight by teachers, aided by an "outstanding" Ofsted judgement in 2007, the council backed down. "The residential aspect is the backbone of the school," Mr Williams said. "It allows us to have stability in behaviour and attendance.

"The pupils get 24-hour care, their parents can come and visit, and they work alongside staff so they have strategies to take back to the home environment. It gives everyone time out."

Primary-aged pupils were admitted for the first time three years ago as teachers wanted to start working with children and their families earlier.

"In the past, (pupils) were likely to be sent to out-of-county placements and then come to us anyway at age 14. Before, pupils would arrive in Years 8 or 9; but that's too late," Mr Williams said.

The work of the staff goes far beyond the confines of their own school. Springfields' teachers are currently training staff at 22 secondary schools and 38 primaries; they work closely with the behaviour support team at Wiltshire Council; and they have helped four other local authorities reshape their special educational needs services.

Last year, Springfields became one of the first SEN schools in the country to get academy status. It was hoped that this might lead to funding for new classrooms, but so far the Department for Education has refused the school's bid - a bitter disappointment to everyone there.

If the money was granted it would allow Mr Williams and his team to help more children - something he feels is desperately needed. "The medical world has moved on but the education world hasn't," he said. "We've got to embrace learning, rather than having children just sat looking at a whiteboard."

But, facilities aside, a dedicated team of teachers and support staff are key to the school's success, Mr Williams believes. "I want outstanding staff. We have a huge selection process, including interviews over two days," he said. "We aspire for everything at Springfields to be as perfect as possible. Only if we are elite can we transform the lives of these vulnerable children."

EXTREME CLASSROOMS

In two years' time, two teams of children and teachers from Springfields will race each other across the Atlantic Ocean.

Teachers have enlisted renowned sailors to help them get pupils to New York, while supporters of the school are providing two luxury yachts. It will be the "wettest classroom" pupils have ever experienced.

The planned trip is part of a series of "extreme classroom" adventures that the school has offered to its pupils, which have already included visits to the world's hottest and coldest destinations.

Last year, teachers led a group of pupils on an adventure to the Arctic, an expedition that was filmed by the BBC. This year they went to the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, Africa - again, the experience was filmed and will be shown as a BBC documentary later this year.

Kieran Broom, 15, recently returned from the trip to Africa, during which he made friends with Masai tribesmen, an experience that has changed his perception of education.

"It's showed me how important it is that you go to school," he said. "I used to think it would be good to stay at home - although I wasn't allowed - but I met people who had to walk 15km to get to lessons."

Teachers and pupils want to climb 5,600m up Mount Everest, just above base camp, to visit what they are calling the "highest classroom" in the world in October 2013. They also have invitations to visit New Zealand and California.

These trips have an important purpose. The aim is for Springfields' pupils to leave the school feeling self-motivated and self-sufficient - and staff believe that taking on the challenge of an expedition thousands of miles away from home will help them to achieve this.

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