Kent pupils are flourishing thanks to a nurture programme that's won praise from the local authority and parents. Susannah Kirkman reports
"Moving the seaweed", "flying geese" and "reeling silk" are all part of an imaginative nurturing programme for pupils with special needs at Angley School, a sports college in Kent. They are the names of qigong (pronounced chi-kung) or tai chi exercises, which students are learning to boost their concentration and calm their mood.
"Qigong is excellent for improving co-ordination and balance, and a feeling of being rooted," explains Ann Cook, the teaching assistant who runs the course. "One of the principles of tai chi is also to build mental concentration and stabilise moods."
Ann teaches the exercises to dyspraxic and dyslexic students, but principally to pupils in the school's two nurture groups. These have been created to support children in Years 7-8 who are struggling with the mainstream curriculum and the demands of life in a busy secondary school.
"Year 7 pupils have 16 different teachers and 20 different classrooms,"
says Stephanie Bedford, Angley's headteacher. "This is not helpful for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, Asperger's or low self-esteem."
Instead, the nurture groups of around 14 pupils have their own classrooms, where they are taught by only three different teachers. The small class sizes allow the teaching programme to be far more flexible. Last year, one of the groups hatched chicks from the school farm in their classroom, using a Victorian hatcher. "As soon as the children heard the first taps of the chicks, the teacher stopped the lesson so that they could see the birds being born," says Stephanie. "It introduced an element of awe and wonder."
In Year 9, the students, many of whom have reading ages of four or five years below their chronological ages, will be disapplied from the national curriculum. Instead, they will follow courses leading to Asdan and BTec qualifications, and many will attend college part-time.
The nurture groups have won praise from the local authority as an example of good practice; the school has been chosen to provide practical experience for trainee educational psychologists who now work closely with nurture group students. The system is helping vulnerable pupils to thrive, according to Kay MacAndrew, Angley's Senco.
Two nurture group pupils, one with Tourette Syndrome, have been able to move into mainstream classes and the reading ages of some pupils has also risen by as much as two years within their first year at Angley.
Kay believes students' overall motivation and behaviour have also improved.
"It is lovely to see the children flourish and grow in confidence," she says. "Before, I would see some students with special needs arrive at Angley with enthusiasm, only to see them become withdrawn or disruptive as the hurly-burly of mainstream school life took its toll."
Parents are delighted with the gains their children are making. "The parents of Kelly, who is in the Year 7 nurture group, have told us that this is the first time she has been happy at school," says Kay. "They are convinced she would have become a school refuser without the nurture group."
Parents of quieter pupils also feel that there is no danger of them being overlooked in such a small class and everyone has welcomed the move away from the national curriculum and GCSEs, according to Stephanie. "They feel it is better to do alternative qualifications than to attempt GCSE and fail," she says.
Meanwhile, the pupils have made impressive progress with tai chi. Two of the Year 8 students have taken their first exam, and have been filmed leading and instructing their classmates in the moves. Even last lesson on a Friday afternoon, the children are happy to shift their desks back and carry out the movements confidently and serenely. "It calms me down even when I'm feeling angry," explains one boy.
Ann emphasises that tai chi is not a quick fix for special needs pupils, but she believes that students can gradually build up their concentration from small beginnings.
The exercises start with deep breathing from the abdomen, which helps students to be still and focus on what they are doing. The soothing background music adds to the atmosphere of calm and contentment. Copying the graceful movements and obeying the teacher then demand focus and listening skills.
On a physical level, tai chi loosens joints and helps with muscle development and flexibility; it can also reduce tiredness and increase energy. But Ann says one of the main benefits she has noticed is the increased confidence of students. In tai chi, all the learners can become instructors, demonstrating a qigong to the rest of the class.
Co-operative behaviour is another facet of tai chi, as some of the exercises rely on teamwork, with pupils mirroring their partner's moves. A favourite qigong move is "moving the seaweed", where the students work in pairs to guide each other's movements. tai chi also has strict rules insisting on mutual respect.
"You have to learn not to offend and not to take offence," says Anne.
"There is a polite way of correcting someone else's movements, and during lessons, no one is allowed to be rude or interrupt when someone else is speaking."
Tai chi has enriched the curriculum in many other ways; classes have practiced writing Chinese characters and haiku; they have made their own fans and followed other Chinese traditions. "We celebrated the Chinese New Year with the most surprising sweets, which were not quite the fruit flavours we expected," says Anne.
However, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this martial art, as Ann describes it, is the way it teaches "a stillness which no one seems to have any more".