The school day starts on the drive in. As anyone that works within SEN knows, no day is quite the same and any stimuli that might be overlooked by some, could make or break a learning experience later that day. Mind-a-whirring, I’m thinking of my options and limitations. Who is allowed to go where and how long can I keep their attention there? The average day can be anything from a pre-planned and well executed learning opportunity, with fantastic attention and engagement, to a whirlwind of distractions and damage limitations, flying by the seat of your pants as you scrape something educational out of a small-scale riot.
Back to the drive in, I’m listening to Radio 4, for a number of good reasons; it provides the current events, public opinions, well-argued debate (sometimes), all things of which can provide talking points and opportunities for students to express themselves, and start to consider their future roles in society. Additionally, it seems that there is increased airtime and public scrutiny over the way children are being educated and in particular, the damage that can be compounded by isolating and ignoring individual special educational needs. It is heartening to hear that the development and care of these children is only striving to improve. Secondly, it gives me a wonderful sense of inspiration for the day knowing that my role gives me the freedom to cater, in every possible sense of the word, to meet my student’s needs.
I’m at school by half 8, and typically have an hour before I need to be standing at the door of my student’s address. In this time, I’m munching a crumpet and drinking a coffee considering my timetable for the day. I’ll be collecting a range of resources to cover plan A, B, C, maybe even D. This can be anything from boardgames and badminton rackets, firewood and tarpaulins, wellies and cameras, gas stoves and bushcraft kit, bikes, kayaks, archery kit, fishing rods, boxing gloves, yoga mats …. you name it, we have it. As an additional standard loadout, the Releasing Potential provided rucksack has all the important bits; medical forms, first aid kits, paper and pencils, spare clothing, water – all things every good outdoor’s person should carry. The lot needs to be loaded into the designated vehicle for the day before signing out and wishing my colleagues/angels-in-disguise, a good day.
At the house I’m usually met by a positive sight. Sheepish acknowledgement that school isn’t so bad at Releasing Potential. We hop in the car and head for period 1. Often this is a good time to catch up and see what’s new, how are things developing and how has it made them feel? In some cases I do very little talking, only speaking to ask why they felt that way or what made them most upset about a situation. Other times I sense they’re not up for a deep and meaningful, so I let loose and babble about all our options for the day and why I had planned the lesson where I had. This is my moment to sell my incredible plan and hype them up to enjoy it with me.
With the range of activities and places we can take our students, I’d argue that even students with the most difficult and complex needs can be shown a calmer, more appreciative side of life, if only for the few hours you have them. Conversely, they have absolutely no trouble expressing themselves about environments they aren’t mad about. With this in mind, I’m only operating where I know I can work with them at their full potential. As a nature lover myself, it’s just one of the bonuses of the job to be able to spend my working days enjoying it.
Some days start with a trip to the supermarket. We’ll need a croissant and a meal deal, or maybe we’re hunting ingredients for Cooking Studies. This is an essential part of the day for social development. Walking around a supermarket and buying goods might seem like an emotionless task to lots of us, but to some of our children, contact with the public, understanding of budgeting, healthy eating, real-life examples of business structure and employment, are all valuable examples of what the world after school looks like. As we stroll, I will poke them with questions about their interests and how they could be applied to certain career paths. This is met with mixed emotions – some students have high hopes for themselves, others feel rejected, either by family or society, and can’t picture themselves as part of the ‘normal’ world. In any case, my role is to encourage them and guide them through things they might not have been exposed to previously.
This brings us back to the session, we have our heading and we have our supplies. It’s not too difficult to gauge reactions to the plan for the day so I waste no time explaining any further. Although the students like to know what we’ll be doing, I still want to keep an element of mystery to the day, making that ‘unexpected’ marsh discovery all the more sensory. The range of subjects covered at RP is dizzying. Indeed, if you have an interest, you can probably get a student to like it with you. Recently, I gently forced my interest in photography onto one of my students with a day trip to Kingly Vale Nature Reserve in the South Downs. Knowing that he liked marching through the woods but not knowing what we’d find, we ended up taking pictures of anything that had an interesting pattern, attractive colours, unknown plants, animal trails, signs of conservation, anything that provoked thought about the world around us.
My student took great delight in focusing the lens manually and taking careful shots with the correct light settings. The data gathering then provided a foundation for a great follow up lesson, making an annotated collage of our photographs displaying all the varieties of mushrooms we came across, presented with careful thought and application. The second part of this activity took 3 hours start to finish on a different day, and although my student was utterly ‘googled-out’ by the end of it, he’d proven that not only could he work well in school environment, but also that his attention to detail and perseverance was far greater than I had previously credited him for.
In other instances, we have students who prefer to work in a school setting, sometimes due to anxieties or special needs. In all scenarios, the student has access to everything they need to progress into work experience or further education. One of my more nature-shy students prefers to work only at a computer and has professed an interest in plumbing. Consequently, I have lined up a selection of computer-based NCFE topics to work through in order to provide evidence of his academic ability for application to College, through a medium that works best for him. With learning opportunities like these, we are allowing the students test their strengths and discover their capabilities in an understanding and progressive environment.
Embedded within these activities is a sort of unspoken, carefully crafted ‘RP magic touch’. Being as unique as the school is, it has the ability to transcend the limitations of both mainstream school and pupil referral units. With its no-restraint policy and unrestrained love, patience and dedication, we are able to show children and young people that they contain all the ingredients to become strong and respected members of the community. In addition, Releasing Potential is able to provide an Institute whereby some of the latest and best researched ‘best-practice’ in managing challenging behaviour can be shared with a variety of industries, highlighting the importance of inclusive practice at school or in the workplace.
This RP magic touch is often highlighted in the end of day debriefs following the safe return of our charges. By 3pm I’m usually back in school, unaccompanied. I have a solid half an hour to write a daily report on our school’s performance logging system, describing the events of the day, notable behaviour (good and bad), safeguarding concerns etc. This data all forms a comprehensive record of achievement in which we are able to search for keywords and important information about our students and their progress, at any given time.
By 3.30pm the tutors are gathered with tea and biscuits, going around in a circle, each revisiting the day’s important events. This can be a lengthy process as we discuss particularly challenging moments, breakthroughs big or small, generally anything worth sharing to give increased understanding for a better delivery next time. The support and shared advice in some of these meetings is inspirational, help is given earnestly and freely. In attendance is a multi-talented, truly caring, and slightly crackers team of humans. Some of these reviewing sessions result in stinging eyes and lots of hugs but how else would you know you work with the right kind of people, doing the right kind of thing?