26th March 2018

Growing up North: Giving children a voice

Author: Dame Nicola Nelson DBE

Valour academies in the Outer West of Newcastle upon Tyne strive to remove barriers to learning for their children, beyond those normally associated with education. A trend has been emerging in Newcastle and indeed further afield, of children starting school with delayed speech development. It is becoming too familiar to hear children simply scream or point at objects to get an adult’s attention.  Creating a language rich environment was unfortunately not enough to enable the children to form sounds and make themselves understood.

We decided to use some of our pupil premium money to employ 2 speech and language specialists into our schools as the number of children who needed support was ever growing and challenging our staff team. We had also taken the opportunity to use the speech and language therapists to train early years staff and members of the SEN team to assess children and plan programs of work.

The speech development in our children improved and the children began communicating more clearly which also helped with phonics, reading, writing and general happiness. We now have a team of staff in both schools who are trained in speech and language therapy and we no longer need to employ the therapists- though still ask them to work with our more complex cases.  We prefer to measure the impact in the ability of children to develop friendships, take part in playing and being happy. In addition our phonics results in year 1 have improved and remain well above national average.

Another area we have invested into heavily is addressing children’s and family’s mental health issues.  Blimey, we are all endeavouring to meet the demands in this area. For the last few years, as services supporting schools and families are cut, we have seen a monumental rise in the number of children exhibiting mental health issues.  We buy into services and this helps in the most extreme cases, however, the sheer volume of children needing help is overwhelming. It is soul destroying to see children struggle. Childhood should be filled with the sense of being problem free, worry free, carefree but for many this is simply not the case. Beyond the worries of what they will eat during school holidays, whether they will sleep that night for the turmoil in their neighbourhood, will their parent be able to cope today; some children are showing signs of anxiety in primary school. We are not mental health specialists, but we are training every staff member to be ‘Thrive’ trained so they understand how they can nurture the children.

Valour academies now have the vast majority of teachers and support staff trained, and employ a full time Thrive practitioner to provide strategies for the children to cope with their difficulties. These 1 to 1 sessions are delivered both during and after school time and after. We have seen some amazing results, particularly with children who have had attachment issues or anger difficulties. We have never excluded a child for over 10 years and have taken in children from other schools who are on the verge of permanent exclusion. Our approach works for us, and more importantly, works for the children and their families.

Our school vision is to make children feel safe, happy and loved. Every decision we make regarding school improvement has to meet one of those aims. When children feel safe, happy and loved amazing things can happen. Lives can be transformed. Smiles return and childhood becomes a magical time. I wish we could eliminate every worry from a child’s life. We cannot, though I would like to think we give the children the tools to cope and give them opportunities to succeed.

So when asked the secret of valour academies’ continued above average results year on year I would respond that it is all down to our school vision. Give children their childhoods, make them smile and feel cared for. The rest will follow. I truly believe that.

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