When people talk about life having returned to ‘normal’ this year, the reality is that things have changed enormously. For those of us working in special schools, the challenges of Covid were immense and forced us to think differently and more creatively. Staff had to come up with ways to support children and families, providing care and continuity of education in what felt like impossible circumstances at times.
Whether this was delivering food parcels to people’s homes or ensuring classes were up and running for vulnerable children who needed to be in school, the focus was solely on making a positive difference to a child’s life.
The ongoing impact of Covid on pupils is stark. Lost learning has affected academic achievement across the board and we are seeing an exponential increase in mental health issues in young people who are already very vulnerable.
But the abundance of creativity that emerged during the pandemic has had a very positive effect on our schools this year. Staff have continued to think outside the box at every juncture, focusing on what we do so well: ensuring children are in school, safe and well taught.
This creativity was reflected in the bids submitted for our trust’s Covid recovery fund. Our schools were able to bid for money to enhance the children’s school experience and some amazing suggestions were funded. These included outdoor gym equipment, a sensory garden, balance bikes, trampolines and reading sofas.
The pandemic has made us re-focus on our core business of making a positive difference to children’s lives. This has been particularly important when considering the political context we have been operating in.
With a merry-go round of prime ministers, education secretaries and ministers, even the most politically savvy among us have found it difficult to keep up at times. This instability has impacted policy development and made it even harder to make sense of the government’s planned direction for education, as set out in the schools white paper and SEND review.
This has come at a time when schools and trusts are grappling with an energy and cost-of-living crisis, industrial action and financial challenges. Not easy at all.
But by remaining calm, holding our nerve and maintaining our integrity, our pupils have celebrated some amazing achievements and successes.
One of our biggest challenges has been (and continues to be) staff recruitment. This is very much a national issue, but finding the right staff for special schools can be even harder, and when you do find them, they need to be nurtured and supported.
Our trust has recognised the need for longer induction periods, ensuring staff are supported to adapt to a special school environment and have the resources to do their job well. We want staff to be able to focus on their role of supporting pupils, giving them the autonomy and confidence to do this, and this applies to staff wellbeing too, which continues to be a priority.
All the children and young people in our SEMH schools have EHCPs and we need to work closely with other agencies to ensure their needs are met, but we have seen local authorities under increased pressure this year. It’s important to understand and acknowledge this, but it is of course frustrating. We can only hope that the SEND review will effect the positive change that is so badly needed to fix a system that is bursting at the seams.
After four decades of working in education, I am now two weeks from retirement. I have felt privileged to do this job, working with magical people every day who transform the lives of children. No matter what’s been thrown at staff over the past few years, they have continued to put pupils at the front and centre, with genuine enthusiasm.
We can’t right all the wrongs in the world or fix a broken system by ourselves, but by being open to opportunity, having hope, building resilience and focusing on things we do well, I know our schools will continue to flourish despite the inevitable (and plentiful) challenges they face.