Mike interviews Tim Browse this week for our final episode of the academic year. Tim is headteacher at Hillcrest Primary School in Bristol although he is moving on in September. Mike went on a two-day visit to Hillcrest and was struck by the great learning going on inside but it was in the playground that he was surprised by what he saw. There were chickens, children on spacehoppers, children stacking boxes , children tying crates together, walking round on stilts or riding sleds. It looked like chaos but it seemed to be purposeful chaos – all the children seemed to be highly engaged and happy.
Tim explains the equipment is called Play Pod and it’s supplied through Bristol Scrap Store. It encourages creative play in a situation where the school has no green space at all.
“It’s the kind of playground where if you don’t like football you might find it a bit an overwhelming place to be.”
With only funds available for one Play Pod, they had to make a decision whether to put it in the Key Stage 1 or the Key Stage 2 playground. So they decided to think differently and abandon separate playgrounds for Key Stages. This was a great idea and the results are clear in the great play between all children. They build dens and space rockets and all play together.
There used to be an indoor ‘chill club’ for those children who found it difficult in the outdoor environment and these children had additional time with the scrap store equipment in smaller groups. Now, these groups are able to access the outside all the time because the scrap has given them a focussed sense of play.
“We’ve seen more quality play and we’ve seen fewer playground upsets.”
Tim points out that seeing children at play in this new way has really helped the adults who work with nurture groups.
Listen to the episode to hear how Tim overcame an unexpected behaviour issue and lots of other inspirational stories!
Ollie Frith has spent this week with some amazing educators on Pivotal’s Fast Track residential training. 6 of them volunteered to talk to him for the podcast about the importance of culture change in schools.
As Ollie says, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. If we get the culture right in our schools and colleges, then great change can happen, otherwise we are just fire-fighting or being reactionary.
Nicholas is assistant head at a large, East London secondary school. After a career of work in areas such as underachievement, he is currently working on a PhD in race and education.
Do schools take the understanding of why certain groups underachieve seriously enough?
Nicholas believe we generally take it as a ‘given’ that certain types of children underachieve and out job is to do something about this rather than considering why these children are underachieving in the first place.
Is the underachievement of ethnic minority children due to a racist school system?
Nicholas believes this is true but it’s only part of the answer. When we speak about underachievement, people are happier to engage when it’s bases on a ‘deficit model’ – there’s something wrong with the child, the family, the background, the culture or the community. However, when you try and talk about the education system being institutionally racist, it gets closed down pretty quickly. This is the part of the problem that the education system hasn’t been brave enough to tackle yet in any meaningful way.
How do we facilitate and encourage these conversations?
However odd it sounds, Nicholas believes we need to create an environment in which it is safe to have these conversations. Governments starting the process to legislate against institutional racism in schools would be a very difficult thing to do (but it does need to happen). However, we can start by asking ‘what can schools do?’ They can start to consider what they should be doing in their training sessions, in their environments, in their policies.
We can start to point to the instances of institutional racism in our own institutions and begin to invite staff to question their role in it. For example, does the way we set children in our own school reflect a notion of the potential of different groups?
Is the act of defining any minority group – fuelling the problem at he same time as trying to solve it?
There is a danger of this, according to Nicholas but what it does do is bring to light phenomena which are already taking place. A large part of the responsibility of underachievement amongst minorities is down to the system itself. Pointing this out might be criticised as labelling other students who are going through the system. However, this kind of inequality needs to be brought to the attention of government and it’s already being done by researchers and academics. It’s better, according to Nicholas to accept that there is a risk to highlighting what’s going on in order to try and redress the situation.
Should we be targetting underachieving groups who aren’t ethnic minorities in the same way?
Nicholas believes we should. It’s most important to find out why they are underachieving in the first place but he does warn against just using raw information like progress data on its own. It is possible to hide underachievement by just focussing on the achievement data and not taking other factors into consideration. However important data is, we must not lose the element of humanity.
What can we do about recruiting more ethnic minority teachers?
Nicholas agrees that targetting ethnic minority children might be part of the solution and he points out that getting a more ethnically diverse teaching population is helpful but it’s more important to have a staff who are prepared to communicate and collaborate with the local community. Also, there aren’t enough black and minority leaders in the system – and Nicholas sees this as a real problem.
Nicholas’ Top Tips for making progress:
Have an open and honest debate in your school about why certain groups are underachieving and define the systems and processes which work to the disadvantage of these groups
Find out what the impact is of the changes you make – make sure you review
Joe is Director of Learner Services at Bridgend College. After realising that Primary teaching wasn’t for him, he did some work experience as a teaching assistant in an FE college, working with learners with complex needs and emotional and behavioural difficulties. He loved this work so decided to do a PGCE. After projects with young people with autism, he moved to Wales to join the team at Bridgend FE College.
How might a young person with additional needs find the FE environment particularly challenging?
Joe thinks that the structure and operation of FE colleges are so different to schools that it can cause issues. For example, a lot of FE colleges cannot offer a 5-day provision and the timetable is looser than in a school. There won’t be a school bell or a uniform and teachers aren’t addressed as Mr., Mrs., Sir or madam. It’s essentially becoming an adult with all the challenges that presents to young people.
There’s also a perception that the support for young people in FE college won’t be as personal as at a school. Joe works with staff, parents and carers to dispel this myth and ensure these young people receive the care and attention they need.
How do you work with parents in an FE setting?
Joe says that the biggest difference is in how they build relationships with parents and carers. They take time to understand what they need and make sure there is a face and a name of someone they can contact. Joe has been involved in
going out to coffee mornings in local schools
providing information which is accessible
He is particularly keen on the use of technology and produced a virtual, 360 degree tour of the college campus so that prospective parents and students could begin to explore the environment from home.
What does an inclusion-focused college look like?
Joe’s college mission statement is:
‘Be All That You Can Be’.
What that looks like is different for all of us. Inclusion is how the college responds to the students’ prior achievement, how it looks at programmes which are fully inclusive and allow learners to work at t level which is appropriate for them. That will be different in maths to an independent living qualification and you need to start with the person, rather than the subject. Then you can work back to define what provision will help them to meet their needs and to progress. As a result, Joe is cautious about how he uses transition information and tries not to let it govern the way provision is designed.
What needs to be done to ensure no learner arrives in FE without the support they need being in place?
Joe believes that early intervention is crucial. It’s vital to build relationships with learners, parents and feeder schools as early as possible and to help you ensure you have the skills and knowledge necessary to support new learners in your staff before its needed. The curriculum offering also needs to be fluid and responsive to the needs of the individuals you are catering for. It’s also important to consider what other services might be needed – for example in the ‘third sector’ (voluntary sector).
It’s essential that everyone involved understands their role in supporting the young person.
There is a huge amount more detail and examples in the episode so do listen right to the end!
Sinéad is Senior Lecturer in Primary English Education at The University of Brighton. She has been involved in very exciting research into creativity in the classroom. As a primary teacher for 15 years, Sinéad has been looking at how we can hold onto creativity in the classroom, particularly around the use of drama, despite the pressures and demands of the world teachers find themselves in now. This means that the main focus of her work at the moment is teacher confidence in teaching drama and creativity throughout the curriculum.
Are most teachers not confident in taking risks and using drama in their teaching?
When Sinéad mentions drama to teachers, it tends to bring a lot of anxiety out in them. They see drama as performance but Sinéad’s work is about the process of drama and how we can unpick this in the primary classroom. She believes that drama as a vehicle for learning is very powerful. It can be used in a much more integrated way across the curriculum than just as performance.
How did Sinéad develop her research and what is its purpose?
It all came from her own experiences of standing, feeling uncomfortable in front of 30 children wondering how she was going to get them to access a particular text. She wanted, for example, to help them access the challenging themes in stories and she felt that drama has a very pivotal role to play in supporting children’s understanding of concepts like loss, grief and friendship. This can be done via the secondary narratives in books.
What is the process for getting drama into as much of the curriculum as we can?
Sinéad takes a text with her student teachers at Brighton and looks for ‘bridges’ or gaps in the text where specific drama techniques such as:
role-playing the action in that part of the story
If we model the story for the child, they can then draw on the experiences of the story and what the characters are experiencing and help them to extend their language and apply them to their own lives.
Sinéad gives a great example of getting into role herself as Samuel Pepys and also tells us about one of her student teachers in a science lesson who worked with her class to role-play the life cycle of a piece of sweetcorn as it went through the process of being eaten! This led to amazing use of language! Sinéad points out how important enabling children to play with language is.
How does Sinéad give teachers and children the confidence they need to try drama techniques out in the classroom?
Sinéad says that she too also has some anxiety whenever she teaches a drama session. She thinks it’s important to feel that it’s a little bit nerve-wracking. She talks about teachers nudging, coaching and supporting – we all like to play and tell stories and that’s the angle we should be approaching drama from.
For children, we can start with games – drama starters – many of which can be found through a simple online search. Even a circle time session can be used to build up trust and ensure everyone is listened to.
For teachers, now that drama has been changed to a curricular vehicle rather than a subject of its own, its possible that drama isn’t used at all in the classroom. However, Sinéad believes drama is extremely useful and it is possible for teachers to use strategies like the ones above rather than thinking that they need to be performing in front of their classes.
Sinéad recommends ‘baby steps’ and little stages. She also points out that in drama you don’t need a complex, crammed lesson plan – you can just take one game, one idea, one activity and reflect on it.
Why should any teacher take the risk of adding this level of creativity into their teaching?
Children want and need to make meaningful things.
If you offer them rich experiences of principled practice with using language and story and modelling high quality language and narrative patterns, there are huge benefits for the teach and the student.
Chris Dyson is Headteacher of Parklands Primary School in Leeds. Chris loved school himself and always wanted to be a teacher. He worked in Stoke on Trent and York before moving to several different schools in Leeds and helping one of them move from Special Measures to Outstanding. Finally, he became headteacher at Parklands.
How do you build a culture where learning is admired and children are heroes because of their learning?
Chris points out that shouting at kids who are already shouted at for most their lives doesn’t work. When he reached Parklands, staff morale was at rock bottom, there had been many exclusions and 5 heads in the past year and the first thing he did was to ban shouting. He believed in the children, he listened to them.
Incredibly, lunchtime had been banned in order to improve behaviour. Chris asks us to imagine what the afternoons were like without a lunch breaks for the children. The real problem was there was nothing for the children to do at lunchtime, nothing to play with and no structure.
“Tig on the roof was a very popular game before I started.”
Children would climb up onto the roof of the school at lunchtime and chase each other around. As soon as Chris arrived he said that if anyone went on the roof he would call the Police to get them down. Within 20 minutes a child was up on the roof and 5 minutes after that the Police arrived. No-one has been on the roof since.
To combat the lunchtime problems, Chris collected all the children who had been been excluded for behaviour at lunchtimes together and gave them a £10,000 cheque from Pupil Premium money to design their own playground. They invested the money really well in football pitches and basket ball courts. It had a huge impact because the children now wanted to be out playing at lunchtimes.
Was taking hold of behaviour and making sure kids were safe the best thing to do first, before innovating on teaching and learning?
Chris believes 100% that this was the right way round.
“As soon as you get the behaviour right, the children are ready to learn.”
How does Chris create the ‘Maths Heroes’ in his school?
Paul is amazed by the level of maths knowledge and skill in Parklands Primary. Chris says that he has always had a focus on times tables from the moment he started teaching. He started by creating a ‘Times Table Knockout’ competition in his class and then when he became a headteacher he could transfer this to the whole school. He now has weekly competitions with the winners able to sit on ‘winners’ row’.
The children take part in national competitions against secondary age children on times tables and Andy believes that when you understand times tables, maths becomes straightforward.
How important is competition in learning for your school?
Chris is unashamedly keen on competition. He manages the times tables competitions so that the same children don’t win all the time and the culture he has developed means that the children who don’t win are spurred on to win themselves next time.
Are parents involved?
Chris thinks it’s essential to include parents. He is dogged and unrelenting in encouraging parents to come to the assemblies and from a very low baseline he now has 80-90 parents attending regularly. A lot of these parents didn’t have good experiences themselves so Andy believes it’s very important to include them.
Christmas at Parklands
Chris realised that a very small proportion of the children at his school had ever had the chance to go to a Christmas Grotto. He contacted local businesses and managed to give out over 300 presents to children as well as providing over 300 Christmas Dinners on Christmas Eve. One company even arranged for reindeer and a sleigh! This was two years ago. This year they managed to raise over £15,000 worth of gifts in two weeks. This meant they could give away 798 presents and serve the same number of meals – including to children from the local secondary school who turned up as well!
What are the hard decisions for a head today?
Chris says that funding cuts are the most difficult things to deal with. He managed to avoid redundancies through persuading local businesses to do building work for free but the pressure is a huge difficulty.
Andrew Swartfigure is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA).
Andy has worked with children and adults with Autism, language difficulties and ADHD for more than 17 years. He has worked as a self-employed ABA Consultant as well as working for organisations such as Childhood Autism UK (PEACH), Jigsaw CABAS School, Ambitious about Autism-(TreeHouse School, Ambitious College) and Beyond Autism. In addition he has written and delivered competency based training as well as being a ratified AET trainer.
Other exploits include working with the London Leadership Strategy group regarding SEN data in schools, Outreach services within the AFC Local authority, contributing to the SEN strategy in AFC, developing other services such as post 19 further education and local training hub pilot schemes regarding provision development in a multi- agency design.
Andy is currently the Head of the Peartree Centre. The Centre is a mainstream inclusion unit based at Stanley Primary School. The Centre caters for primary age children with Autism and other co-occurring difficulties such as language difficulties and ADHD.
Andy has modelled the Centre’s approach with an underpinning of Behaviour Analysis and School wide PBS. Multi agency working is a key expectation and necessity to get the best for the children at the Peartree Centre.
Varndean’s 5 pygmy goats Alan, Ethel, Maya, Bertrand and William are named after each of the four School namesakes; Maya Angelou, Bertrand Russell, Alan Turing and Ethel Ellis. The fifth goat, William, just happens to share his name with the Headteacher!
Staff and students spend time with the goats every lunchtime at Goat Club, where they can come along and meet the goats, learn how to feed and care for them and maybe even take them for walks around the school grounds. The school are firm believers in the power of animal therapy in supporting students in stressful times, and the power of nurture is a proven tool in the practice of mindfulness and wellbeing.
Schools who have pets are really developing and benefiting from the therapeutic benefits of keeping animals.
What do the goats feel their role is?
The Varndean goats help students to calm down from any negative emotions they might be feeling as well as teaching students how to look after animals properly – an important life skill!
What is the goats’ role in behaviour management?
The goats are so naughty that they make the students’ behaviour seem a lot better! However, the benefit students derive from learning about nurturing, caring and developing relationships with the goats helps them enormously with human relationships as well.
The goats are receptive to humans only when they are gentle and caring and this is a great lesson for everyone.
Why are the Varndean goats so successful?
Part of the reason is because the goats are so well integrated into the life of the school – for staff as well as students. Staff can ‘book the goats and come out with groups of students or individuals to do some work with them.
How do the goats help with wellbeing?
The goats provide a great way of de-stressing for students – it’s impossible not to relax when you are with them.
Are the therapeutic effects just for students?
The goats say that staff open up and show their softer, more loving side when they are with them. This is also appreciated by the students! People can open up to goats without fear of reprisal and often show sides of their characters which are normally hidden.
Another benefit is the outdoor education which is possible. Varndean School has an Eco Club and a Gardening Club as well as lots of outdoor curricular activity. Tara is very impressed with how the students interact with the goats, each other, their teachers and visitors including herself. It encourages leadership and positive activity. For example, working with the goats begins before 8am every morning and students are there to look after them.
Sarah Wild is headteacher of Limpsfield Grange School, Surrey, which caters for the needs of girls with autism. She shares some amazing insights into a side of the autistic spectrum which is widely misunderstood.
Isn’t autism a boy thing?
Sarah points out that the majority of what we have known about autism is based on the work of scientists about 70 years ago and their study was of young boys. So we have focused on just that one end of the autism spectrum. Girls do make up a minority of those with autism, however.
Sarah says that autism isn’t a disease, it’s just a neurological difference and it can even be positive and people can be really proud about it.
Girls with autism present in very different ways to boys. They might:
be much more sociable
be really bothered about relationships
be friendship-driven from a really early age
try hard to fit in with the people around them
Girls often exhibit ‘masking’ or ‘camouflaging’ – from around Yr 4 they know they aren’t quite the same as everyone else and it makes them feel isolated and depressed. So they ‘social scan’ – they work out who has lots of friends and how they do it. They examine what a popular girl does, what she wears, how she behaves, what she is interested in and they replicate this. This ‘masking’ means they have deliberately constructed a different version of themselves and suppress their natural instincts and judgements and do what they think other people want them to do.
This doesn’t result in the feedback they want and it’s exhausting so they go home and have melt-downs because which can be traumatic for them and their families. Some autistic women do this all their lives and there can be a severe mental health toll from it.
This behaviour also means that some autism in girls is missed. To counteract this, new diagnostic tools are currently being developed to be more gender-netural and not rely so heavily on the accepted definition of autism based on those original studies of boys.
What should a mainstream teacher be aware of so they can ask the right questions about girls and autism?
There will be some signs, despite autistic girls’ masking. They could be:
trying hard not to attract attention
sitting at the back of the classroom
the last person to laugh at a joke
exhibiting superficial behaviour
on the outside of social groups
struggling in noisy corridors
struggling in classrooms with too much light
socially isolated despite the fact that they are trying
taking high-risk behaviours to the extreme in secondary school because they think that’s what teenage behaviour is
passive and ‘easily led’
young for their age
trying to dominate conversations
Sarah mentions The Autism Girls Forum and the booklet it produced with NASEN – Girls Flying Under the Radar This is written specifically for mainstream practitioners and includes lots of advice on how to identify autistic girls and how to help them.
Why are there not more schools like Sarah’s?
Her school has been in existence since 1953 and has at times not been single sex. Sarah describes it as ‘a throwback’. She thinks if it had been in any other local authority than Surrey it would have been shut long ago. However, she thinks it is highly relevant today.
It works because the girls who are often marginalised and don’t have a voice have a community of people in the school who love, accept, celebrate and understand them. They can be themselves at Limpsfield. If girls are in an environment with autistic boys it’s really easy for them to get overshadowed as the boys can ‘explode’ while the girls ‘implode’. Sarah believes the school can cater well for the needs of autistic girls in ways they couldn’t do if the school was mixed.
If you are a slightly quirky woman with an obsession about rabbits people are not going to entertain that as much as if you are a quirky guy with an obsession about trains.
Can we build more inclusion into the mainstream?
Autistic people really like not being with neuro-typical people because they find it draining. They like the fact that they are in a community of people where they don’t have to explain themselves all the time. Sarah believes that some autistic people can thrive in mainstream settings but we have to look at individual needs and make sure there is a wide-enough range of settings available. It’s not OK that this is the only school of its type in the country.
Often girls put pressure on their parents because they want to be part of the community at Limpsfield. They feel that they will be accepted and therefore can make progress.
Sarah believes that the most important thing they do is to help keep the girls mentally well and as a profession we have to make sure we limit the amount of pressure we transmit to children.
How does the school use animals for positive effect?
After a suggestion from the site manager, Sarah agreed to get some alpacas for the school. Now this has grown to chickens, koi carp, goats, miniature Shetland sheep, dogs and goldfish.
Girls can access the dogs, for example, if they are having a difficult time – Sarah believes that animals just make you feel better. She says that the curriculum has moved in a narrowing, dry direction recently so leaning to care for an animal is a really important skill – in fact, as important as a GCSE in Maths.
Also, the animals have been very useful when talking to girls who are at risk of self-harm. They make conversations about taking care easier. The girls agree they wouldn’t harm the animals so why would they harm themselves? They are as worthy of love and support and care as the animals.
Sarah’s top tips for mainstream teachers to start working positively with autistic learners
Build a relationship with them
Find out what their special interest is and talk to them about it
Make learning as concrete as you can – present the same information in a variety of different ways
There is a lot more detail in the episode so please do listen right to the end.
Andy founded the Holistic Life Foundation with two co-founders he met at college. They decided that their mission in life was to try to save the world and work out how to get everyone to stop suffering. One of the group’s godfathers agreed to teach them all facets of yoga practice – at 4am each morning – with the proviso that they became teachers themselves. Eventually, they had the opportunity to work with a group of ‘problem kids’ and that’s where the foundation started.
“We try to make compassion cool.”
What is the foundation all about?
One of the main aims of the foundation is to give adults and kids the tools they need to regulate themselves. Andy points out that the children learn to love themselves through the programmes – they get a sense of self-worth. When humans love themselves first, it’s amazing how much easier it is for them to start loving others. This is when the neighbourhood, the climate and the culture in a school starts changing.
Originally the principal of the local school had asked Andy and his friends to become sports coaches for the ‘problem kids’ but they suggested teaching them yoga and meditation instead. The principal didn’t really mind what they did with them as long as they were prepared to care for them. There were only about 10 children but very soon after starting the programme, the numbers of the kids in detention per week reduced. Parents were delighted even though Andy is convinced they had no idea they were being taught mindfulness and mediation – they just saw the dramatic improvement in their children.
That small group of children were about to go to middle school but Andy and his colleagues decided that they weren’t going to abandon them. They picked each of them up from their middle schools across the city every day and took them to a central location for their classes. They also started to take the children to other after-school programmes.
When adults saw how positive the impact was becoming on the community, with the children starting to teach their parents the techniques, word spread and the foundation began to attract many more children. The programme now runs five days a week and works with 160 children.
“If you come to the programme you’d see a little three or four-year-old leading everyone through breathing techniques.”
What are your thoughts on detention – how was it working in the Baltimore area where you set up the foundation?
Detention wasn’t working for these kids. It was pouring fuel on the fire of their already heightened state. There was no attempt to help the children 0 to give them tools to help them to help themselves. The child is shouted at in the classroom, sent to the office, sent home and then returns the next day. If the same situation occurs, he reacts in the same way. He has no way of improving because he hasn’t been shown or taught how to handle his state of mind.
So instead of being sent to the office to be shouted at, the foundation arranged a room which was set up as an oasis in the school with yoga mats, meditation cushions, Himalayan salt crystals, bowl diffusers and posters with positive affirmations. The child would come in, the staff would actively listen to them and then lead them through some breathing exercises and meditation, modified to be appropriate to the specific scenario the child was facing. They only have 15mins with the child after which he is sent back to the classroom. When faced with that scenario again they have been taught a tool to use instead of reacting as they did.
After 3 years working in the same school, there are now no suspensions at all. They haven’t replaced detention with meditation – it’s just that the kids don’t need them anymore. They have learned to regulate themselves.
“They are finding that sense of self-worth and they are more compassionate towards themselves and others.”
Andy believes that this could change the dynamic in every school across the world.
How did the teachers and adults in the schools react when you first suggested the approaches?
The reaction is always mixed. Some teachers have experience of meditation themselves so are positive but others are highly sceptical. The way to convince the sceptical often is to explain the science behind the approaches. Members of both the groups worry about how their teaching will be disrupted but Andy points out that the programme is intended to fit complement their teaching. If they are spending 15 minutes of each lesson getting the children settled, this can be reduced by the children learning the tools to regulate themselves. Overall, most teachers are convinced very quickly when the see the results – the transformation. The foundation always teach the staff first. The staff need to be practising themselves first before they can model and reinforce the approaches to the children, which is essential.
What is happening in a child’s brain and body when they meditate?
Andy explains the concepts of ‘flee or fight’ and the automatic nature of our reactions to stress or danger. Listen to the episode to hear his detailed description. He says the problem is that most of us don’t know how to bring ourselves back to a calmer, controlled, relaxed state. This is where practising mindfulness and meditation comes in.
What skills would you pass on to teachers who don’t have access to these sorts of services?
Andy says he teaches simple ‘belly breathing’ or ‘diaphragmic breathing’ to everyone wherever he goes:
Breathe in and out through your nose
Breathe in with your belly
Slow your breathing down
Also, Andy recommends a basic meditation concept:
Whenever you get a moment in your day, just stop for a second
Take a few deep breaths, just block everything out and just be
There are a lot of extra detail and examples in the episode so do listen right to the end.