Therapeutic interventions to drive school improvement

Written by: Dr Tim Cook | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Introducing a range of therapeutic provision in his disadvantaged primary school was at the heart of Dr Tim Cook’s school improvement strategy

Social injustice is endemic”. Not necessarily my own views, but certainly those of Alan Milburn MP, who was the chair of the government’s own Social Mobility Commission until he and his entire team resigned on December 3.

In an interview on the same day, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chair of Parliament’s Education Select Committee, identified the relative paucity of outcomes for children coming from disadvantaged homes. For teachers and school leaders, addressing this burning platform is the moral issue that brought many of us into education.

Also on December 3, secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt, announced additional funding for perhaps the most disadvantaged children within that bracket: those with mental health issues.

The prospect of all schools having a mental health champion and a four-week waiting time target for access to a specialist mental health worker is laudable. However, while we’re waiting for these initiatives to be realised, action is needed now.

I am currently principal at Liskeard Hillfort, a larger than average and rapidly improving two-form entry primary school. Its Ofsted rating is currently “requires improvement”, while Challenge Partners have just rated the school as “good” overall. In terms of income, 56 per cent of its children come from the bottom 30 per cent of deprivation; 16 per cent come from the bottom 10 per cent of deprivation. Pupil Premium sits at approximately one-third.

Many schools are in deprived areas but recent research into coastal isolation has found that Hillfort’s rural setting in Cornwall has an additional impact on levels of aspiration and academic achievement.

And in terms of the local context, there are significant factors, such as higher levels of domestic abuse, that offer potentially fertile ground for mental health challenges.

When I took on the headship in November 2015, in the context of a significantly underperforming school, a lot of children were falling foul of our sanctions system. There were 36 exclusion days in one year and these were children who were crying out for support.

I felt a radical solution was required to address their needs. I made a decision to introduce an intensive system of therapeutic care, based on my experience as head of an alternative provision school, my own doctoral research experience in a secure custodial environment, an awareness of the social context in Cornwall, and our analysis of the type of behavioural incidents occurring in school.

Our starting position

To find out which children needed extra support, and what kind of interventions were needed, we set up a number of monitoring systems. Initially we made easy use of Strength/Difficulty Questionnaires (SDQs) and then purchased Pupil Attitude to Self and School surveys (PASS).

Over a longer period of time, we trained colleagues to implement Boxall Profiles and Thrive analysis. The aim was for our teachers to be able to map a child’s confidence as easily as they map their academic performance.

For a school starting to work on this aspect of provision, the SDQ analysis tool is the easiest to implement and indeed the cheapest – by getting the parents and the teacher to “score” the child, patterns of behaviour become fairly easy to predict.

From this, we knew that there was an issue to resolve, connected to the ability to emotionally empathise with one another. One of the key challenges for some of our pupils was linked to the level of “being” – they were more concerned with ensuring their own survival than connecting with others emotionally.

Transforming our environment

Over two years, we have installed three different rooms with different “target markets”. We also identified a small, central office and converted it to a “Thrive room” with beanbags, mirrors, cushions and puppets. This room is a refuge and a trained learning support colleague does proactive work with the pupils who go there.

Partnering with experts

To deliver the services we wanted to, we needed to work with people who were experts in this field. As well as employing music and play therapists, I set up partnerships with organisations that use schools as training centres for therapists, under supervision from qualified colleagues. Various organisations are open to schools hosting placements for free, with Play Therapy UK one such example.

We were also lucky in that our SENCO could make referrals directly into the Wave Project (Newquay) – an incredible charity that offers surf therapy that three of our pupils have so far participated in.

To save on costs, I identified “sister” organisations that we could work with, such as the church or local music groups. Well-qualified family workers volunteer their time to hold relaxation sessions for our pupils. I also employ our local church worker to provide staff and parents with therapeutic counselling. Often, great people are out there just waiting to be asked.

It goes without saying that all safer recruitment checks have to be carried out in the usual fashion as colleagues who come into the school are likely to find themselves in positions of trust. This should be standard practice.

Forming bonds across generations

I set up a relationship with a national and outstanding home for older people with dementia. On a weekly basis, our pupils visit people in the home. They can build self-esteem, confidence and attendance as they know that the residents are relying on them.

Using PASS we are able to see the impact of this weekly visit on the pupils. Some of our more nervous children blossomed over the past year as a result of this. The depth of shared understanding can bring a tear to your eye.

Animal therapy

Research has shown that stroking animals can be very therapeutic. Looking after the animals gives children a taste of responsibility, and we also have found that pupils often feel more able to disclose information about themselves when they are engaging with the animals. We invested in two gorgeous giant lop bunnies, and we have a large fish tank. Our Pupil Premium Plus is used to build pupils’ self-esteem through horse-riding lessons. A Pets-as-Therapy dog also visits the school (as well as the local ginger tom).

The wonder of watching an upset child be soothed by stroking a rabbit or an angry pupil calm down while staring at the fish tank is something which never fails to amaze me. These animals help build esteem, act as a valve to release frustration, and in the most extreme cases can have a profound impact on a child.

Supporting parents to seek additional help

It is worth noting that for the most complex cases, we seek parental support to refer a child to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). Once a child is on a course of support, it is not ethical to offer two forms of counselling, but it is ethical to make referrals in partnership with parents who might need support to access these services.

Our impact so far

Challenge Partners have awarded our school an “area of excellence” in terms of our therapeutic care for inclusion – a public recognition of outstanding practice.

We are now able to focus on the core business of teaching and learning. Lessons are more engaging with fewer distractions. Ofsted rated our personal development, behaviour and welfare as “good”, having come from a very weak position previously. Indeed, Ofsted identified that: “School staff are highly skilled and effective in helping pupils who require additional emotional, social and behavioural support.”

Our school corridors and classes are now warm, friendly places to be, and exclusions are significantly down – from 36 days when we started, down to five days last year. The tools we use to measure social, emotional and mental health, such as Thrive analysis, all indicate demonstrable improvements – for example, our PASS survey now indicates an entirely “green” response on our whole-cohort profile of nine questions about school. Our school is becoming a more popular choice – 380 pupils, up from 341 two years ago – and we are continuing to build our reputation.

I’m proud of our impact on some amazing children and we are now beginning to influence others through publications and lectures. We recently delivered a lecture at the Plymouth University Teacher Training conference. Increasingly, we are hosting visits from other schools locally.

While we have dedicated considerable budget to some of our initiatives, many of them are possible for free or for a low cost. In terms of plans for the future, I am aware that our children’s needs change on a regular basis – so our offer must remain dynamic.

Improving children’s mental wellbeing means they will not only be healthier individuals, but they will learn better. Mental health support is finally being given greater recognition and this is wonderful news.

The initiatives I have discussed above have helped our pupils to navigate their emotional and social challenges, and we hope they will enable them to thrive beyond the school gates.

  • Dr Tim Cook is principal of Liskeard Hillfort Primary School in Liskeard, Cornwall, and a graduate of Ambition School Leadership’s Future Leaders programme.

Further information

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children:

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