ARC Learning Hub

Spen Valley High School

Spen Valley High School, Kirklees, West Yorkshire, ARC Leaning Hub

In September 2018 our school had a sanction-led, behaviour system in place, but despite this behaviour was not good. The school had above national levels of suspensions, extremely high numbers of lesson removals and detentions, higher than national levels of persistent absence, and not surprisingly low examination results. The quality of the curriculum was poor and relationships between students and some staff was a concern. Many students seemed to be in emotional crisis which acted out in extreme behaviours. In short, the system wasn’t working and rather than tinkering around the edges wholesale change was needed; enter the Attachment Research Community and a whole new way of working. I find ‘networking’ extremely difficult so at the ASCL conference in March 2019, I avoided this by ‘mooching’ around the various stalls and it was there that I came across the ARC. We joined immediately and, apologies for the overused cliché, began our ‘journey’ to become a trauma informed school.

 When adopting this approach, we have not simply adapted our behaviour policy and systems. Of course, they have changed significantly, but this way of working influences every part of our school; the curriculum and the way we teach, the facilities we have developed, our CPD programme, our staff well-being programme and the way we recruit. When implementing such a large-scale change we were keen to do so gradually, and this measured approach has led to it being successfully embedded throughout the school. Before making any decisions, it was important that we were fully informed so we undertook research, looking at key texts and articles, alongside visiting the very few schools who were already working in this way. This helped us to develop partners, from whom we learnt practical advice, who acted as our critical friend and more importantly, when things got tough, a shoulder to cry on. We were also privileged to take part in the Alex Timpson Attachment Trauma Training Programme and then subsequently to be chosen by the Rees Centre at Oxford University to take part in their research study ‘Attachment Aware & Trauma Informed Schools Programmes’. These not only developed our understanding of this approach but also widened our network of support.

 To become a Trauma Informed Schools one our key priorities was to improve our curriculum and the quality of our teaching, because to get students to want to ‘belong’ to your school you have to make the lessons worth going to. Prior to 2018 the curriculum was not aspirational, it didn’t engage our students and it wasn’t well taught.  This in turn led to students misbehaving; not attending; being removed and ultimately poor outcomes. There were also very few extra-curricular opportunities. Therefore, in September 2019 we began a whole school review of the curriculum and set about re-writing all Schemes of Learning and making sure these were aspirational, yet properly scaffolded to support all student to achieve their potential. We began to teach this in September 2020 but continue to make amendments where necessary ensuring they meet the needs of each new cohort, and are supporting the inevitable post Covid gaps in learning. It would be dishonest to say they are perfect in all areas but the quality of education is now good, our curriculum is now aspirational & engaging, and there is now much better teaching. Many of our students do not have access to cultural activities and experiences outside of school so we launched our extra-curricular ‘Culture Clubs’ in September 2021 and embedded these into our KS3 Home Learning Policy.

 Whilst of course our aim is for all students to access full time, mainstream education all the time, we know because of their adverse experiences this is not always possible for some young people. However, the need for support (especially around SEMH) outweighs capacity in most local authorities and ours is no exception, so we have developed a very wide-ranging Personalised Learning Provision (PLP). This is exactly what the name suggests and provides bespoke support for students including: literacy catch-up, bereavement counselling, various therapies, emotion coaching, social stories, or simply time spent in our allotment and with our well-being dogs. This provision provides a safe and supportive environment for our students. We also know that since the Covid pandemic an increasing number of students have found it difficult to re-engage with schools so, to help reduce anxieties and provide additional support to all our students, we have replaced tutor groups with smaller coaching groups and teach all our students’ zone of regulation. All this additional support inevitably comes at a cost but it is a key priority in our school improvement plan and has been funded by ourselves, through a financial plan that is strategically linked to the needs of the school.

 Managing the well-being and workload of staff is a key responsibility for any school leader and we know that a trauma informed approach to working with young people can be much harder. Our staff work with dysregulated students, who may display their emotions through anger or sadness. They have to plan to meet the emotional, as well as academic needs of the students and of course, when dealing with students with trauma it may trigger something within our staff themselves. Therefore, from the very beginning we have been committed to having robust and genuine support for staff. Our CPD programme is bespoke so that staff time is used efficiently and they are improving the areas where they need to develop. Self-evaluation is done ‘with’ not ‘to’ our staff as we believe people develop best where they are listened to and supported, rather than in a climate where they fear their leaders. And similar to our students, we also have a wide-ranging well-being programme for our staff that includes: weekly staff coaching circles, menopause workshops, men’s mental health sessions, a staff counsellor and a programme of Friday after-school activities. This does not mean we have poor expectations of our staff, on the contrary, it is about providing an appropriate balance of support and challenge so that our staff genuinely develop their practice and hopefully remain in our school, something that is essential in the current recruitment crisis. More importantly this will help them develop their own resilience so they remain regulated when supporting our students.

 I would love to say that after five years everything has completely transformed, that we are now the finished article and that all of our ‘key performance indicators’ have all significantly improved when compared to March 2019. But I can’t. Firstly, because I don’t believe you can ever be the ‘finished article, but also because of two main barriers; the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crises, which means many of our families are not only living in poverty but are also impacted by the erosion of the much-needed support services. It is well-documented that over the past two years there has been a decline in mental health and resilience of young people and their families, leading to an increase in student dysregulation and persistent absenteeism. This is certainly the case with our students. Facing this one reaction might be to return to a more hard-line behaviourist approach, but we remain unwavering in our belief that that a trauma informed approach is even more important for our young people now than it was pre-pandemic.  Despite the continual challenges we face, we are proud that our suspensions remain lower than previous years (and significantly lower than our neighbouring schools). Alongside this, there has been a dramatic reduction on the number of lesson removals when compared to the days of our behaviourist approach and improved behaviour in lessons. Whilst attendance is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels we are (at the point of writing) slightly higher than the national figures. However, the impact of our work is probably best summed up by Molly, in Year 11 Head student (she is also care experienced); “If I had gone to a different secondary school, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t be Head Student; I wouldn’t even be in school. I’d have refused to sit my exams… I would have been some teenager kicking down doors. That’s not who I am but it’s who I would have become”.

 As a leader there are many pressures on you to ‘jump through the hoops’ of an Ofsted framework and unfortunately over the years this has led to the unscrupulous practices by some leaders, of off-rolling students and employing strategies to ‘game’ the systems and boost Progress 8 scores. At Spen, we pride ourselves in being ethical leaders, leading with honesty and integrity and above all placing the students at the very heart of everything we do. We believe in fairness, social justice and above all leading with kindness. This does not mean, as some might believe, an acceptance of lower standards and expectations, far from it, but it is a change in mindset of what success means and how you measure it. The headline data of our school’s Progress 8 figure is not where the DfE would want us to be; however, the underlying information about each student is far more telling about the success of our school. Whilst some students might not achieve their target grades in all of their Progress 8 buckets, we know that, thanks to the efforts of the staff in our school, in spite of the significant trauma in their lives these young people have attended school and are on career pathways that are aspirational and appropriate. In addition, they have been allowed to express their emotions, learnt how to re-regulate themselves when in crisis, experienced compassion from adults, and been kept safe. This is success.

 I am not alone in thinking measures such as Ofsted and performance tables need to be changed, but until that is the case, I know they matter to schools and are often the barrier to schools adopting a Trauma Informed Approach. However, when we started on this journey, we said that regardless of these measures, we knew it was absolutely the right decision for our school. Therefore, we were pleased when our inspection report recognised the success and value of our approach and hope it encourages other leaders to also take this leap of faith, because by adopting this approach we breed kinder, more resilient young people, who will go on to be kinder employers, kinder neighbours, kinder partners and kinder parents. This can bring about genuine societal change, something that was never more important than it is now.