Last year, the year I retired from Headship at Queensmill School in London, we were lucky enough to win the Pupil Premium Award (PPA). There must be an element of luck, for how could we know whether or not another school had an even more effective plan for helping their socially disadvantaged children?
Social disadvantage exists. There’s no getting away from that. We wish it didn’t but it does. Where better to tackle the problem than in schools? This is because schools are the best possible place to change aspirations, break moulds and let children know that they can achieve anything, as long as both they, and their schools have the right attitude to do so.
How we did it
Queensmill is a very large special school in Hammersmith and Fulham, catering for severely autistic children from the ages of 2 – 19 in various departments. It also has 3 units in local mainstream schools, primary and secondary. These units are for autistic youngsters who sometimes need the quiet haven of an autism-specific base, whilst also allowing them to integrate both socially and academically into the mainstream school. The children remain on the roll of Queensmill and the staff are also from Queensmill. It is a unique and very successful model thanks to the very inclusive host schools and the dedication and expertise of Queensmill staff.
In writing our PPA application last year I described four major strands:
- Offering our many before and after school clubs to pupil premium families in the first instance. Staff at Queensmill thoroughly understand the difficulties of bringing up a child with severe autism, and those difficulties can be compounded when families are in unsuitable housing, with very little social advantage, leaving some parents feeling isolated. School staff made sure they knew the circumstances of the children in their class, and made sure that were always available as a lifeline to offer support, respite and trips and visits.
- The school is committed to Sensory Integration Approaches, these are methods of helping autistic children to reach a calm-alert state in which they are able to learn. This work is led by in-house occupational therapists, who work alongside all staff, training them as they go. It achieves transformational results for such children, and we ensured that those living in social disadvantage had access to every advantage that sensory integration could bring them, both in school and in their homes.
- Autism is a communication disorder. Many autistic children can speak, but see little purpose in doing so. Many have delayed speech or need speech machines. The first imperative of a school such as Queensmill is to teach children functional language, or failing that, functional communication through a paper or electronic method. Our PP funds ensured that we could always keep a stock of the very best quality electronic devices so that all children could have access to highly motivating machines and equipment both at home and at school, with well-trained staff to support in either setting.
- Lastly, we used our PP funding to enhance our music curriculum. Although many of our pupils were at P level or lower national curriculum levels of academic functioning, we found that they responded extremely well to music. We were able to hire a world-class musician who can entice and enthrall on several instruments, who played music to calm and delight, but also used music to have an interactive conversation with children for whom reaching out and communicating to someone else can be very hard. In targeting our socially disadvantaged pupils for even more music sessions, we knew we were offering some of them experiences that it would have been very hard to replicate in their homes.
How your school can stand out
Having been one of the judges this year, I believe I can now look back and see why Queensmill’s application stood out. We were very clear about our moral compass; we felt it was not enough to say that our commitment to equal opportunities would ensure we provided the same excellent education for all. For children who are socially disadvantaged, this is not enough. They need to be the recipients of extra care, extra mentoring, extra tuition and extra curricular activities.
In reading the multiple applications submitted this year, many of them stood out as doing exactly that, and those who could describe their passion and delight in being able to do so, often in very challenging circumstances, of course became the short-listed and the award winners this year. I take my hat off to them.
Although retired now from Headship, I am still working in the field of autism, and I delight in still being part of a profession that sees where it needs to go that extra mile for their pupils, and does it willingly and without fuss, because they know the difference they can make to young disadvantaged lives.
Do take a look at the Queensmill website to see the fabulous work of the school under the new Head, Freddie Adu. Also, if you have 1 minute 20 seconds to spare, have a watch of the school's #PlaceOfPeace video on Youtube, to get a short glimpse of what the school is about.