September re-opening: Lessons from the special school sector

Written by: Kelley Fray | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

During the lockdown, many special schools remained fully open to provide support for SEN learners. Kelley Fray considers what lessons they have to offer mainstream schools ahead of wider re-opening

We operate education services for students with complex needs around the UK, providing specialist education to those with a range of physical and learning disabilities. In short, we look after some incredibly vulnerable students.

This has meant that, throughout the lockdown, we have provided a large number of young people with face-to-face education or continued their residential care, while also ensuring that the pupils who were able to be home-schooled still received the support they needed.

We had to think quickly about the measures we implemented, some of which could potentially be replicated and adapted for mainstream education now that schools are welcoming back more students.

The very first and most critical step we needed to take was robust risk management procedures, which we introduced from the outset of the crisis. This included restricting access to site for any non-essential visitors, temperature checks for anyone arriving at school, including students and teachers, and appropriate PPE for all members of staff.

While many mainstream teachers will try to limit the need to be “hands-on”, those working in the early years or the primary sector will understand that sometimes physically coming into contact with a student is inevitable.

For our settings, this could be due to the child still needing support using the toilet or requiring a nappy change, or to intervene when a child may have hurt themselves or another person. We ensured that any member of staff likely to be put in this position had access to all the required PPE and training to maintain levels of infection control.

In addition to this, all staff and students, whether they were likely to be involved with hands-on support or not, were reminded of hand hygiene and encouraged to practice this regularly. For children, this often-required supervision and guidance from staff, and younger children found using songs, such as Happy Birthday (twice) or nursery rhymes, helped them to remain focused and brought some fun into things.

As is the case with all schools, our risk assessment process continues to evolve as we move towards, once again, running our facilities at full capacity. This includes having strict parameters around class size, clear social distancing protocols and daily risk management meetings.

Like many, we are also limiting movement around the school to ensure the safety of all on site and planning for staggered start times and potential part time placements as another means of reducing risks. This is a complex task, as we must strike a balance between our health and safety requirements and what will be best for each individual child. At the time of writing, we have managed to maintain a zero rate of infection without any detriment to the emotional and educational welfare of our students.

As I have mentioned, many of our pupils have complex emotional needs, so addressing the crisis and our response to it required sensitivity towards their mental health and wellbeing. One technique we used which would translate well to mainstream sites is social stories, something we use across all our services to support student understanding.

Social stories are primarily a tool used for people on the autistic spectrum to help them understand interpersonal interactions or situations, with the aim of helping them to elicit an appropriate emotional response.

Through words and pictures, we are able to explain to our young people what is happening, what may be expected of them, and flag up any new experiences that we wish to prepare them for.

One example of this is when we were concerned that some children may be distressed about seeing a member of staff in a mask for the first time, so we prepared a series of cards featuring staff with and without facial covering. We have also ensured that our services have created timetables which provide structure but are not, in themselves, overly structured.

For all children, regardless of their mental health or physical needs, the current situation can be disarming and strange, so it has been our aim to create some normality without putting too much pressure on them. By ensuring, for example, that each day begins with a song, ends with a story, and has a range of activities to engage and occupy the student in between, the child knows what they can expect, helping them to remain calm.

We have also needed to be mindful that, while non-essential visitors have been asked not to attend our sites, there will be instances when someone who is not a member of staff, a parent, or a pupil will need to be granted access. For mainstream schools, this may be for vaccinations or maintenance work.

At our facilities, our students benefit from the support of external professionals including social workers and psychologists. It was essential to us that these services were not interrupted during the lockdown, so they have continued via video call where appropriate, and on-site visits where required. We have ensured that any visitors are briefed on our latest health and safety rules and adhere to our strict hand hygiene and PPE procedures.

Due to the vulnerability of the young people we work with, it has been impossible for all of them to continue attending school, whether this is because their own health has required them to shield, or because other family members need to be protected. For these students, we have developed a range of support mechanisms including remote home learning packs and a range of sessions delivered via Skype which include speech and language and occupational therapy sessions, music lessons and some fun activities including a virtual disco and a virtual tea party. Staff also keep in touch regularly with families via telephone and email.

Conversely, in our residential facilities, we have had the situation where families have been unable to visit the students, and staff have come up with creative solutions with video calling and email to overcome this barrier.

While mainstream schools will probably not encounter such difficulties, it may be a consideration for activities where parents are normally invited to attend the school, such as school plays, sports days or parents’ evenings. Communication and contact between schools and parents are essential, but in future we may have to rely on technology a lot more to achieve this regularly and safely.

Like all schools, we are keen to welcome all of our students back once it is safe and achievable. We believe that at the very heart of this is clear and transparent communication with our staff, students and parents to ensure that everyone is confident.

Through the structure, engagement, explanations and guidance we have provided to both the students who continued to attend the facilities and the students who were educated from home, we hope to quickly and safely transition all students back to full-time, face-to-face education.

  • Kelley Fray is MD of education and children's services at Salutem Care and Education, a UK residential and healthcare operator.

Further information

DfE: Guidance for full opening – schools, July 2, 2020:

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