How commitment and compassion kept a SEN school running during coronavirus

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Cheryl Smith recounts her experiences of working with young people with PMLD when a pandemic is thrown into the mix.

Working with young people who have special educational needs and complex mental health issues can be challenging at the best of times, but what happens when a pandemic is thrown into the mix? Cheryl Smith recounts her experiences.

Cheryl Smith has more than 25 years’ experience working in education, but has only been in the Headteacher role for 18 months which meant she took on the role at the start of the pandemic.

“To say it was tough starting a new job during a pandemic, which already had many demanding requirements and complex constraints, is probably an understatement,” Cheryl says.

Creative thought process.

“I didn’t have the luxury of a slow introduction to the job, I literally had to hit the ground running because my primary aim was to ensure we stayed fully open throughout so our young patients still had access to quality education. Fortunately, I know St Andrew’s very well, so I was already familiar with how things ran on a day-to-day basis. Alongside maintaining an excellent education provision for our young people, I had to focus on introducing all the COVID-19 safety measures so staff and patients were well protected.”

Mental Health Act

St Andrew’s College caters for children aged between 13 to 18 years old who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act to receive treatment for their mental health. This means the students are often very unwell and presenting with risks to themselves and/or others.

“So, this means my team have to be highly skilled mental health practitioners,” Cheryl says.

“They also need to be resilient compassionate carers as well as educationalists, to meet the needs of our pupils fully and ensure they feel safe and supported.”

But throwing COVID-19 into the mix meant Cheryl had to dig deep and start thinking even more “creatively and flexibly” when it came to delivering lessons, even when wards were in isolation due to outbreaks of the virus.

“We had a few staff teaching from home on occasions, which meant they had to work extra hard at keeping the students engaged in their learning,” Cheryl explains.

“When on site we ensured all our teachers were in full PPE, following our COVID-19 protocols and carrying out extra hygiene routines throughout the day.”

Unannounced inspection

If that was not enough to contend with, in June 2021 Ofsted turned up for an unannounced inspection!

“I don’t think any Headteacher in the world would choose to have Ofsted in for an inspection straight after a pandemic and national lockdown, but we rose to the occasion and got on with it, doing what we do best. Teaching, caring and educating,” Cheryl says.

Thankfully the hard work paid off and the published report rated the school ‘Good’ overall and ‘Outstanding’ for behaviour and attitudes.

Trauma informed approach

The school was also praised for its trauma informed approach which is about providing individualised care and education around each young person’s specific needs and recognising the experiences they have had.

Cheryl says this involves the team building trusting therapeutic relationships with each student when they are first admitted, because it is generally acknowledged that entering the hospital for the first time can be very frightening as our young people don’t know what to expect.

“A friendly face and a sympathetic ear can go a long way with these children who are understandably scared, uncertain and often lacking in hope at the beginning,” Cheryl explains.

“We’ve found the key is to engage them early, so they get used to seeing us. Once we’ve got to know the patient a bit, then we start building their bespoke programme of education around their future aspirations and individual learning and mental health needs.

‘Resilience and self-esteem’

“It’s our sole aim to develop the child as a whole person during their time with us, and we do that by focusing on the development of their resilience, self-esteem and hope for the future, alongside more formal and mainstream educational achievements.”

Despite the challenges that coronavirus has thrown at staff, they must have been doing something right as more than 170 qualifications were achieved this year alone, including a number of grade 9 GCSE results.

Music therapy.

Now that the worst of the pandemic (hopefully) seems to be over, Cheryl is starting to look to the future. She has community plans she is hoping to roll out which will become even more vital, as the impact of the pandemic and recent lockdowns on children’s mental wellbeing begins to emerge.

“We know most people struggled with being kept at home for long periods of time, away from many of their friends and family, and it’s crucial we don’t forget the impact this may have had on our kids too, many of whom didn’t really fully understand what was going on,” Cheryl says.

St Andrew’s and the school have developed a programme for other schools called The Lightbulb Mental Wellness Programme. The aim is to help schools recognise and meet the needs of children with mental health, and create a culture of positive mental well-being for their pupils and staff.

Cheryl says she firmly believes that the initiative could make a real difference to how mental health is perceived and supported in schools and could therefore have a huge impact on young lives in the future.

When asked what makes St Andrew’s so unique, Cheryl instantly replies with conviction and sincerity, so you are left in no uncertain terms just how much she cares for her students.

“We care for some of the most poorly children in the country,” she says. “And we do so with compassion, kindness and understanding, while also encouraging them to achieve the best they can in their education and develop as young people.

“It’s very easy for the children to fall through the cracks in a system which is under so much pressure in the community. We pick them up and help them to believe in themselves and to achieve their goals, whilst they get the help they so desperately need.

“We travel the recovery journey alongside them to ensure they feel safe and supported as they make progress, helping to reintegrate them back to their lives in the community. For me, that is what it’s all about helping to educate and empower these young people so they recover and live their lives to the fullest.”

Cheryl Smith
Author: Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith
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Cheryl Smith is Headteacher of St Andrew’s College. It is uniquely located on the top floor of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health service ward, within the Northampton grounds of St Andrew’s Healthcare psychiatric hospital.

She has more than 25 years’ experience working in education, but has only been in this role for 18 months.  

The College caters for children aged between 13 to 18 years old who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act to receive treatment for their mental health.

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