no school is immune from pastoral issues; in fact, the best schools know that good pastoral care is crucial to success. These schools don’t ask the old chestnut: “Are you going down the academic (sharp suit, Excel ninja, headteacher before 30) or pastoral (knitted jumper, retirement as a head of year who reminded everyone of their favourite uncle) route?”. They know that pastoral care is everyone’s business.
All phases and sectors bring their own challenges – our chair of governors, Father Tim Novis, is the senior chaplain at Wellington College and devotes a lot of his time to supporting students with all the issues that come with being a teenager living away from home. But special schools have more frequent and more overt pastoral issues than most, and as a teacher in a special school you have to be aware of some key flash points:
It is common for us to support children with self-esteem difficulties that arise because of delayed acquisition of skills – many children express daily frustrations over learning to read, for example – or the inability to do something they could do the day before. This is why we make a big deal about successes that many would regard as tiny. The effort a 15-year-old has put into learning number bonds to 10 is worth shouting about.
Incomplete independence in areas of self-care or for issues that persist beyond toddler years can be difficult for young people to cope with. Support for toileting, menstruation and administering medication must aim towards the young person achieving independence without compromising the dignity or safety of either the young person or the staff member. This is no mean feat – a colleague had her arm broken by a student who kicked her while he was being changed as she and a colleague tried to achieve this balancing act.
Dealing with death
Supporting young people with learning difficulties through the grieving process is complicated by their emotional maturity and cognitive development. I was stunned recently when faced with an elated child skipping down the corridor singing, “Daddy’s dead. Daddy’s dead,” many, many months after the father had taken his own life. Specialist training from Winston’s Wish has been invaluable to us, and to parents, as they too need good advice and support to help their children grieve.
The best schools plan phase transfers meticulously. Our biggest challenges are when students join us from secondary schools, often because of their behaviour. For these pupils, schools can be places of repeated failure, bullying and confrontation (with staff and other children) so there is no honeymoon period. It took four months for one student who joined us in Year 10 to feel settled, with his mother accompanying him to lessons all that time. It was tough, especially for his mother, and took some selling to the staff, but it worked. We must be prepared to ride out a period of rejection before pupils feel safe with us.
Bullying is far less frequent in special schools, but is easily replaced by a lack of understanding by many students of the distinction between one person bullying another and friends falling out. We spend lots of time talking through the differences. This extends to the subtleties of using phones, email, texts, messaging services, Twitter and Facebook. We shouldn’t deny our students these tools so we invest time to make sure they can keep themselves safe while enjoying them.
Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher at Carwarden House Community School, Surrey