We are a maintained specialist school in Bolton, Greater Manchester for children with complex needs including Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD), Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). All our pupils have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and approximately 55 per cent are in receipt of the Pupil Premium. We have 140 children on roll, and are located across three buildings in the local area. Our school is part of the Orchards Federation, a group of three schools working closely together for the benefit of all.
Communication is the core of our curriculum as it is fundamental to accessing all areas of learning. This been the focus for both our tutoring and Academic Mentor.
As with all schools, one of the challenges has been around attendance. Although we have remained open since the first lockdown in March 2020 for cohorts of children who were educated on site, our attendance rate across the period has been approximately 40%. A large number of our pupils have remained at home, largely due to their complex needs, even when most schools were open. For example, one pupil who is shielding, has not attended school for almost a year.
For a significant proportion of our pupils with autism, when children initially returned to school in greater numbers in September 2020, we immediately noticed the challenges they encountered re-engaging with their learning. The lack of routine from not being in school presented additional hurdles in terms of engagement.
Communication is the core of our curriculum as it is fundamental to accessing all areas of learning . Not being in school has created significant isolation and difficulty in communicating. If children can’t communicate, they are further disadvantaged. Therefore communication has been the focus for both our tutoring and Academic Mentor.
We have a highly skilled team who use various methods of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to communicate with our learners – this includes eye gaze technology, sign, PECS and PODD. In addition to tutoring we have been focusing on further upskilling our staff team in the area of Total Communication. We have practitioners enrolled on the Elklan Communication Support for Complex Needs and the Elklan Nuffield Early Language Intervention in readiness of further supporting our learners immediately after Easter. This additional level of knowledge and practice will complement the work of our Speech and Language Therapists who have been supporting with specific interventions for children at home and on site. Our full multidisciplinary team – including specialist teachers and teaching assistants, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and our visual and hearing impairment teacher – all created work packs and recorded sessions for children to access at home as well as completing live lessons with families. We have also invested significantly in updating our online remote learning resources, this includes Board Maker 7, a special education platform which allows children to access learning independently, using iPads or through printed documents and symbols. For children without access to iPads at home, we were able to obtain significant additional devices via the Government Access to Technology initiative.
Teaching Personnel were absolutely amazing and listened to our needs and quickly found us a tutor with a background in working with pupils with SEND
Accessing the NTP
Having not previously used tutoring, navigating this process was new to us. We read about the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), and did some research to see if there was provision for special schools as some programmes exclude or overlook specialist provisions. We saw that Tuition Partners would be announced in November and were eagerly searching the website on the day of launch.
We were delighted to find we were eligible and contacted Teaching Personnel who were absolutely amazing and listened to our needs and quickly found us a tutor with a background in working with pupils with SEND. Amanda, our tutor, joined us this term and is a qualified SEND coordinator and has previously worked in a special needs school, so we are really pleased.
For the Academic Mentor pillar, we made a headteacher nomination as we needed somebody trained in specialist communication strategies for our SEND learners and we already had somebody in mind for the role. Teach First were exceptionally helpful in facilitating this and our Mentor is a highly skilled practitioner.
Our tutor, Amanda, joined us after the February half-term and has been focusing on reading communication. We use a synthetic phonics programme combined with sensory integration to facilitate learning with phonics. Amanda supports children who are learning on site and uses iPads for one-to-one learning with children at home. To have a qualified SEND professional joining us this term has been wonderful and we’re so grateful for the extra support.
It’s been invaluable having somebody as specialised as Kim working with us as an Academic Mentor, who provides one-to-one interventions with each child so that they access other forms of learning.
Our mentor, Kim, has been working specifically with our PMLD students on personalised communication plans. This group has been most impacted by school closures because of their complex health needs. This requires a mentor with a high level of skill and so we were delighted when we were able to appoint Kim. Kim has a significant amount of expertise working with children with complex needs which is ideal for our school
Kim has been working with a group of 15 children who have been on and off-site. She can use Signalong, a key word sign-supported communication system based on British Sign Language and is used in spoken word order. She also uses Eye Gaze Technology, which is a way of accessing your computer or communication aid using a mouse that you control with your eyes. One of our learners is visually impaired and has recently come back to school, Kim has been completing one-to-one sessions with him using pre-braille.
It’s been invaluable having somebody as specialised as Kim working with us, who provides one-to-one interventions with each child so that they access other forms of learning.
The impact on emotional wellbeing has been immeasurable and we are currently evaluating the impact of tutoring on pupil progress. It has made such a difference for a child to be able to communicate with another person in their preferred form of communication, this is crucial for them to access effective learning, we are delighted with the impact.
We would recommend other schools consider accessing this high quality tutoring. Be very clear on what it is you need. Both Teach First and Teaching Personnel have been exceptionally helpful in helping us to appoint our Academic Mentor, and finding the right candidate as a tutor. The feedback from other members of staff and families has been really positive, and the increased interaction is evidenced by the smiles on the children’s faces.