It might sound strange, but I often compare our school’s approach to inclusion – which simultaneously keeps exclusion very low and maintains teacher wellbeing - to a pair of woollen socks.
Yes, that’s right. Socks.
When a sock develops a hole, most people throw it away. Or those that try to repair it will find that the hole is back before they know it and is probably in worse condition than before.
A woollen sock, however, is a real investment. It’s finely woven together in a way that makes it easier to repair. When repaired well, this part of the sock often becomes the strongest part.
So, how does this relate to schools?
Too often in schools, there is a growing danger that relationships are manufactured on a surface level, using systems focused on our key output: GCSEs. When these flimsy relationships break down, they are difficult and often impossible to repair, resulting in exclusion from community life. Like a cheap sock, it can feel the only option is to "throw them away". I’ve been asked to share our approach tomorrow at the IncludEd National Conference.
At Carr Manor Community School, we invest in relationships. Relationships are central to our approach to inclusion and key to how the school is able to deliver on the ambitions of our children and families. Relationships ensure we include all children in a successful school experience and prepare them for their lives ahead.
As a growing, diverse, inner-city all-through school in Leeds, with 53 per cent pupil premium children in our 2019 year 11 cohort, a high number of looked-after children as well as those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) considerably higher the national average, our context can be challenging. However, we refuse to throw any relationships away, even those that appear ‘broken’.
We make sure the interconnectedness between all our staff and pupils is woven tightly and individually like a hand-made, woollen sock. Because of these close connections, when relationships are faced with conflict or difficulties, not only can they be repaired, they can become stronger than ever, forming an even greater connection to the community.
We’ve had no permanent exclusions in almost 15 years and usually have the lowest number of fixed-term exclusion in Leeds. And this isn’t mutually exclusive with staff wellbeing: we have high staff retention and low staff absence.
Our school’s culture is built firmly on a sense of belonging and connectedness, where everyone is responsible and committed to repairing relationships when they become torn. And everyone feels the satisfaction of being part of something bigger. But what does this mean in practice?
1. We really get to know our children
‘Coaching circles’ are fundamental to knowing our children and families well and forming strong relationships that are crucial for our whole-school community.
All adults – teaching staff and non-teaching staff – lead timetabled "Coaching Circles" three times a week with approximately eight pupils gathered from all year groups. Pupils start their week with a Monday check in and end it with a Friday check out. It’s a time to get to know one another, sharing targets, worries, achievements and plans for the weekend. The mid-week sessions explore topics such as careers and financial education, health and wellbeing and citizenship, while building resilience motivation and independence – the subjects and characteristics we believe our children need to be successful in the modern world.
It’s about families too. Coaches build strong relationships with parents and carers at "Meet Your Coach" days. These days, which are in addition to the traditional parents/carers evenings with teaching staff, have proved to be very popular with families, who recognise the benefit of knowing someone well in school who can advocate for their child.
The impact of the programme has been profound. It has resulted in closely woven relationships across year groups, staff, pupils and families. It has allowed for better identification of wellbeing or safeguarding concerns and laid strong foundations to positively support challenging behaviour and restorative practices.
Our latest Ofsted report found: “The school’s highly effective systems to support students’ personal development and safety result in an exceptionally harmonious school community.”
1. We choose and know our staff well, always making time for laughter
There is no way our school could have achieved what it has without such dedicated, committed and happy staff. We’re proud to have one of the lowest staff absence rates in the city and low turnover.
The relationships among our staff are just as important as those formed with pupils, so we put great energy into recruiting the right people and building high staff morale.
We recruit individuals who share our passion for enabling children to grow, develop and reach their potential from their individual ‘starting points’. People who care about children’s life destinations, not just their grades. People who feel like they are part of something worthwhile at our school.
We prioritise time to build those relationships. Whether it’s weekly staff circles where we communicate clearly how much we value each and every one of them; starting staff training with salsa dancing; or doing trampolining team building activities!
It may sound silly to invest in laughter, but these connections mean our staff have fewer sick days, are more engaged and, ultimately, our children are more successful.
For us, there’s still a long way to go in ensuring every one of our pupils can lead a happy life – not held back by the circumstances they were born into.
But we hope this inspires you to start weaving together the fabric of your own school’s community life, with lots of laughter along the way.
Tom Shaw is head of character at Carr Manor Community School in Leeds. He is part of The Difference movement, which seeks to improve the outcomes of vulnerable children by raising the status and expertise of those who educate them. He is speaking at the IncludEd Conference, supported by Tes, in Sheffield tomorrow. Tickets available now