Special school transforms lives of Gloucestershire’s most vulnerable children
By Sarah Wood
A special school in the county is changing the lives of young people.
Belong School Gloucestershire, on the outskirts of Gloucester, is an independent school led by Belong Learning CiC, for children in years 8 to 11 who have an EHCP (education, health and care plan) for social, emotional and mental health issues.
The students are some of the most vulnerable young people in the county. They include school-phobic teenagers, who haven't attended school for many years, and children who have been excluded (often more than once) from mainstream and special schools.
The school opened in January 2021 and Janie Ashburner, a former deputy head of a mainstream secondary school, took over as headteacher in June 2021.
Janie Ashburner said: "These children felt like they had been written off. Many of them went to mainstream schools, where they were constantly excluded from lessons, which has caused huge gaps in their learning. Some of our children have had adverse childhood experiences and others have just got needs which a mainstream school simply doesn't have the resources or capacity to manage."
All students can study up to seven GCSEs. In addition to this, the school offers an infinite number of other learning opportunities alongside therapies and character education.
Janie continued: "I have incredibly talented and kind staff who take a therapeutic approach to education. We have extremely high standards and although informal by design, (the children don't wear uniform and call us by our first names), it is highly structured.
"One of our students had been permanently excluded from a high-level special school and only came to us for year 11. He has just passed seven GCSEs and is now off to college to do an apprenticeship in construction.
"One of our students would often spend nights away from her home. Our staff did a lot of things that aren't typical, such as sorting out clean clothes and making sure they'd had breakfast each day. That student has just got a grade 4 in English GCSE and passed maths, and now has the aim of becoming a social worker."
Every morning, school staff pick the vast majority of students up from home and drive them to school.
Janie said: "It is a good opportunity to chat to them, find out how their weekend was and to ensure they are ready to learn. If they're not ready, the staff member will make a dynamic assessment and perhaps take them for a drink or a walk to enable them to take a breath before coming to school. Safeguarding is a fundamental part of our work.
"The school has a calm approach and is kind to the young people, even when the young people are angry. Staff don't touch or handle the young people. As a result, young people don't lash out at staff. If students are upset, we use the strong relationships we build with students to support them. Students take time out of the school to calm down and staff keep a close eye on them to ensure they are safe.
"They can leave the building with staff, go for a walk down the lane, calm down and come back. In a different setting, they might lash out or be physically aggressive. They don't do that here. We've worked with them to regulate themselves. We're calm, even if they get angry. It's all about relationships - we work in a restorative and reflective way."
When young people join the school, the first thing staff do is talk to them about what they want to do and try to instil some aspirations in them. Then staff work to make the students' aspirations happen for them. Staff look for positive experiences and external courses around the county and go along with young people to support them to take part. One boy is doing a Level 2 blacksmithing course at the Miserden Estate, which will allow him to go on to do Level 3 blacksmithing at college next year.
Belong School Gloucestershire was rated Good by Ofsted inspectors in June this year. The report said: "Leaders and staff build warm and trusting relationships with pupils. This is the linchpin of the school's success. Staff invest time to get to know pupils' individual needs. They plan a highly personalised curriculum that is relevant to pupils' education, health and care (EHC) plans. Over time, this contributes to better attendance and engagement in learning.
"The school is a calm place in which to learn... Staff manage pupils' complex behaviours skilfully. Pupils say that they feel safe, including from bullying.
"Most pupils have experienced significant disruption to their education before joining the school. Over time, pupils' attendance improves... They work with external agencies and families to prioritise pupils' safety and well-being.
"Leaders and staff have high expectations of pupils' conduct and behaviour. Disruption to learning is uncommon. High staff-to-pupil ratios mean that pupils receive effective individual support. Staff act as positive role models. They teach pupils to recognise and communicate their emotions. This helps pupils to regulate how they are feeling. Staff resolve issues quickly with restorative conversations... Incidents of poor behaviour have decreased significantly."
Janie concluded: "The children are incredible. The adverse experiences some of them have had are like nothing you could imagine and many of them have literally missed years of education. I'm immensely proud that we can help them and enable them to achieve."
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