A week in a special needs primary school “requiring improvement” in London

Heaven knows what a school must be like that is ranked as “inadequate”.

Background: after a great 2 months working in a college for young adults with autism and LD, (labels/categorisations of course), the author of this site is now spending a week in a primary school for young people with autism and LD. The school is ranked as “requiring improvement” by OFSTED. But I didn’t need to read the government web page to realise that. It was obvious from the first few minutes that something was badly wrong.

Day 1

I arrived at reception as requested by the recruitment agency. (Like a  lot of these schools this one makes heavy reliance on temporary agency staff such as myself; something which OFSTED criticises in their report on the school). Reception did not seem to be expecting me. They managed to take my passport and DBS check (criminal records check – all schools require sight of this these days) – which will please OFTSED. I was told to sign in – and left to work out that that meant interacting with their electronic signing system. No assistance was given with this – perhaps because the receptionist had vanished to copy my passport. (When she vanished she left the student risk assessments on the counter even though there was an “unchecked” person from a rubbish disposal firm waiting in the reception area. This would not have pleased OFTSED). The electronic signing system produced a label (the sort you stick on a parcel) and I was enjoined to stick it on myself. Nice to see that they are respecting their agency staff.

I was welcomed into the class by a teacher (well; I had to ask her if she was the teacher as there were a lot of people milling about and no one obviously identified themself as being in charge). But, to be fair, she did welcome me. Students (aged 4) were milling about in a room. Chaos reigned as it did for most of the day.

Some events I found quite surprising;

I was asked by the teacher to work with one young person outside during a play break. This seemed to be going fine. Then someone who I think was another teacher but I don’t know – came and grabbed the young person I was working with and whisked them off to take a ride in a buggy. Fine that she wanted to include the young person in some particular activity; but I would have expected her to say something like “we’re just going to take M. in the buggy”. Or something. In fact I might as well not have been there – she simply didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. Leaving me standing around at a loose end. What do they want me to do I wondered.

This same person then repeated the stunt a little while later. During a lesson (when all the students were sitting in a circle in a room) I had been asked to sit next to and work with a young girl. I had (of course) been trying to interact with her and support her in participating in the lesson. At the end of the lesson this same teacher simply marched up and grabbed her. As she marched the girl away I could see the girl looking back at me – as if to enquire what had happened to me. (I.e. this 4 year old “with special needs” had a better sense of how to conduct normal human relations than this teacher). Again; my presence simply wasn’t even acknowledged. This is unprofessional. (And, you could say, it raises questions about Safeguarding since good, professional communication between staff must surely by a part of “Safeguarding”).

During lunch I was asked to sit at one table but then asked by staff on the  other table to support a student on that table. Where is my attention supposed to be? I noticed that two boys on my table were developing some kind of altercation but I didn’t concentrate on it because I was busy following instructions to keep the boy on the other table in his seat – which meant I was looking in completely the wrong direction. Suddenly I felt someone lunge across the table to my left (on my blind side). I assumed it was a student (albeit a large one). But, when I turned round I saw that it was a support worker (apparently someone trusted and established in her position), let’s call her heffalump, who had launched herself across the table apparently to break up a very small problem between the two boys. (I also noticed that when handing out the lunch and the drinks heffalump seemed to more or less throw them at students; not give them in a nice way).

During a session in the afternoon (of what appeared to be entirely unstructured play with children left to wander about and pick toys at random) two escaped. The door to the outside area (a large play area and a wood) could be opened simply by dropping a fire-door handle. One member of staff noticed and called out and I flew across the room and after them. It is amazing how far a determined 4 year old can get in 3 seconds. I managed to recapture the first one and (hoping that I wouldn’t be investigated for Safeguarding because of the way I physically handled him) brought him back to the door. I asked the other staff member to take care of him – she hadn’t moved from the door, perhaps because it was cold outside – and set off after the other one. I caught up with him just in time to stop him eating a handful of mud. I wondered why there was no serious lock (e.g. a fob system) on this critical outside door. Indeed the lock system on the internal door of this classroom was also easily circumvented by several of the children who’d discovered that all they had to do was jump up and press the clearly marked Exit button. There were multiple escape attempts via the internal door during the afternoon, necessitating constant vigilance from staff. It crossed my mind that surely someone might have noticed this problem and put on a secure system (fob, combination lock – there are plenty of simple systems). But no.

During an afternoon lesson I was asked to sit with one student. He kept leaving his chair. Under the law (Education and Inspections Act 2006) it is permitted to use physical restraint to maintain “good order” in a school so, possibly I could have legally restrained him to sit in his chair. But (not least because of my experience at the adult college where students were never restrained other than for clear and real safety reasons) I thought it correct to ask for advice. I asked heffalump “he keeps leaving his chair should I try to hold him or let him go”? Heffalump hedged her bets and said “encourage him to stay”. A few moments later she suggested I let her sit next to this boy and go and look after another one. I noticed after a while that heffalump’s conception of “encouraging” this boy to remain in his seat was to drape her huge fat leg over his body. It looked pretty crude. (I think my method of placing my hand in his chest was a lot more tasteful and caring).

At the end of the day the class teacher gave me a radio and asked me to listen out for bus 13 to be called so we could then take the students who travelled on this bus from the class to the door. Fine; except she gave me completely the wrong information about which students in the class belonged on which bus. Another support worker realised that we had come adrift (which at least was a good thing) and that the students still in the class probably should already have been taken to their busses. But instead of saying something to me politely about this she simply grabbed the walky-talky from me. Again I had the slightly upsetting feeling that my presence was being ignored. (This was a regular pattern throughout the day – on multiple occasions I was asked by one member of staff to do something or work with a particular student and then another member of staff would just take the student away without even making any kind of contact with me; as if I had not been there). The college where I worked before this was run in a completely different way. Agency support staff were welcomed, properly briefed, instructed and included every step of the way. When one member of staff wanted to take over they would do so in a professional manner e.g saying “swap”). A complete difference.

The lack of leadership in the school was physically palpable. After about two hours of this I found myself looking around asking myself “where is the leadership here?”. Their absence was a concrete reality. No one seemed to be in charge particularly in the class and it was clear that in the school as a whole anarchy ruled.

Days 2 – 6

Well. Heffalump turned out to know her stuff. She had clearly taken the time to think about the young people in her care and related to them individually. She was also hard-working and aware. I was wrong about heffalump.

The culture of ignoring me seemed to pass after a day or two. Perhaps the school gets so many agency staff that there just don’t pay attention to them unless they stick around a bit.

The whole school still seemed to be in some degree of chaos. Stupid things – like having two staff totally occupied guarding doors to prevent a young person pulling the handle and opening them; when the problem could simply have been solved by someone taking the initiative and installing fob locks. But, individually, most of the staff members seemed thoughtful, responsible and concerned to make sure that the young people in their care had a good experience.

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Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer