Not long after Brian Walton took over as head of Brookside Academy, Somerset’s largest primary school, in 2014, everything started to get on top of him.
Behaviour in the 30-place alternative provision (AP) that sits at the heart of school was deteriorating while budget issues, staff turnover and sliding Ofsted ratings were piling on the pressure.
Feeling overwhelmed, long-time head Walton took refuge in the darkest corner of his office he could find.
“So many incidents had happened in terms of behaviour and children not responding the way I wanted them to that I remember just sitting underneath my desk, thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” he tells Tes.
“And the door opened – one of the [special needs] children had decided to come into my office – and he just came in, looked at me, and said, ‘Don’t be sad.' And then he just hopped off again.”
Fast-forward to 2018 and Walton, the student and the 600-pupil academy have all turned it around.
A difficult administrative shake-up, which involved reallocating budget from the mainstream school back to the AP, allowed Brookside to hire more specialist teachers.
Individualised learning programmes have radically improved attainment: in 2014, three-quarters of children missed their progress targets; in 2017, 94 per cent of students met or exceeded them.
A careful recalibration of safeguarding procedures has also cut high-end incidents, such as violence against staff or smashing windows, by 90 per cent compared with 2013.
Even the special needs pupil who had found Walton hiding under his desk, whose behaviour at that time was among the worst in the school, has transformed into a “model student”.
To top it all, last year Brookside Academy won not only Tes’ award for alternative provision of the year but also the community and collaboration award for its impressive outreach programmes.
Commitment to inclusion
Vijita Patel, lead judge in the AP category, said Brookside stood out from a very strong set of submissions because it had “flipped the entire focus” of the school.
“Their entire approach and strategy is about let’s place [AP students] at the centre and then pedagogy is going to build from that,” she says. “It’s a model for any region because it’s a very inclusive model of what schools can be.”
The transformation has been driven by Brookside's commitment to inclusion, bringing together staff and pupils from the "mainstream" school and AP to learn from each other.
Techniques to improve communication or deal with difficult behaviour, developed for pupils who have highly complex needs, are shared and applied across the entire school.
The approach was lauded by Ofsted, which in 2017 wrote that Brookside’s leaders “place pupils at the heart of every decision made about the school priorities”.
Walton also opened up to governors about behavioural problems that the school was facing and the challenges posed by using data to measure the progress of special needs pupils.
“We started to understand what we really meant by the word inclusion and what we really stood for, therefore our ethos started to become clearer,” he says.
What had “seemed like it was in some ways an Achilles heel because our results were lower because of it, behaviour was challenging because of it, recruitment and retention were difficult because of it, started to become a strength”.
“I would love every school to be able to do what we do because I just think it would solve so many issues in terms of exclusion,” adds the headteacher, who was expelled from school himself as a boy.
(Watch Walton’s top tips for creating an inclusive alternative rovision here.)
Walking around Brookside, this inclusive ethos can be seen in every classroom, from the layout of the rooms to the interaction between staff and pupils.
As well as recruiting teachers, Walton used funds released by the budget shake-up to remodel five classrooms to meet special needs and create a bespoke sensory room.
The rooms have been fitted with specialist toilets and medical facilities like hoists, stripped of carpets, standard chairs and tables, and repainted in calming colours.
AP staff have also created special routines tailored to the specific needs of each child, which have had an enormous impact on behaviour and attainment.
These include communication tools such as Makaton signing, the picture exchange communication system (PEC) and eye gaze techniques for non-verbal pupils.
Reducing students' anxiety
Each child also has a strict behaviour plan, developed with parents, which teachers and TAs follow to the letter to help keep students calm and reduce anxiety.
“Every single adult is giving them the same instruction so then they can’t get confused,” said special needs teacher Danielle Durston.
“It’s about listening to everyone’s opinions, then moving forward as a team and developing the way we approach things as a whole.”
Brookside has even extended its inclusive ethos beyond term time with a holiday activity club for mainstream and special needs children which runs all year round.
Started in 2008, it has expanded rapidly in recent years and this summer catered for close to 160 children, almost 50 of which had high needs.
Parents from all over Somerset use the club, many driving long distances to drop off their children while they go to work, spend time with other siblings or have a break themselves.
As one mother with a six-year-old autistic son put it: “School holidays are harder than term time for me, so the play scheme has been a lifesaver.”
Sandra Cinicola, Brookside’s business manager, says the club sometimes provides emergency cover for children referred by social services when their families are in crisis.
Its staff can also provide important role models for the children, particularly male team leaders who work with boys from single-parent families.
Seeing the children play together doing arts and crafts, baking or climbing in the playground, is “the best part of the job for me”, she says. “As I can safely staff it, we will take as many as come.”
Training aspiring teachers
The club acts as a training ground for young people who want to become teachers, one strand of the school’s broad community outreach and collaboration programme.
Almost two-thirds of the 17 apprentices who have trained with Brookside since 2014 have supported the holiday provision with a specific focus on SEND children.
Nearly all of those who completed their apprenticeships at the school have stayed in education or childcare, many focusing on specialist provision.
Brookside doubled down on its apprenticeship scheme in 2017, moving training from its partner Strode College in-house and creating an on-site training room.
Shonagh Butler, head of vocational studies at Strode College, said the school has lifted many of her students’ aspirations through its supportive yet challenging approach.
“They have been absolutely superb in looking at how we can develop,” she says.
“The fact that they really do treat them as a member of staff, and not a student on work experience, means that they get so much more out of it and the students take a step up.”
Brookside’s efforts have not only made it an important employer for the local community but also propelled it into the government’s top 100 apprenticeship employers in 2017.
Tes community and collaboration award lead judge Vic Goddard said the school’s outreach programmes have been “remarkable”.
He praised the school’s holistic approach to working with its community, from the ambitious apprenticeships scheme to its collaboration with parents.
“The school is filling a gap that you would hope social services could fill,” he says.
“The ripples of what they’re doing go well beyond their school and beyond their community.”
'Treat apprentices as if they are full-time staff'
Shonagh Butler, head of vocational studies at Strode College, which works with Brookside Academy on its apprenticeship scheme, gives her top tips for school collaboration.
- First, recruitment. Whether it’s information, advice and guidance, or the actual interview process, we work hand-in-hand with Brookside to interview and to ensure we get the right apprentice on the right course and in the right role.
- Secondly, and probably most importantly, is that Brookside Academy treats our apprentices as if they are full-time members of staff. This means they attend staff training, they attend staff meetings, [and] there’s a high expectation of professionalism and high levels of performance from the apprentices.
- The third point is linked to the second: We stretch and challenge our apprentices. So, for example, the teaching assistant, if they specialise in sport, in special educational needs, in mainstream, they have the opportunity to work in all of the curriculum areas. So that means they have to be flexible and adaptable, and again show high levels of professionalism.
- Lastly, Brookside Academy has provided us with a training room which means all of the underpinning knowledge for the apprenticeship programme is delivered on site. This means that the school, and the apprentices, have ownership and commitment to the programme – a real recipe for success.