It's 9.30 on a crisp November morning, and having just clambered out of a taxi, I look up at the frontage of Breckenbrough school. The building is impressive and beautiful. I’m no architect but it has something gothic and whimsical about it; it could be the setting of an Agatha Christie novel. As I am about to discover, it’s not just the building that’s extraordinary, but what happens inside too.
Breckenbrough school is an independent residential special school, whose intake - all boys - have high needs. The boys are offered a unique therapeutic environment to help them achieve their academic potential and to prepare them to thrive in the adult world. The pupils here are offered an environment where they are respected as unique individuals, and offered genuinely personalised provision for both academic and social development. Many of the boys have a diagnosis or two, such as an Autistic Spectrum Condition, but it was clear throughout my visit that at this school the pupils are people first, not labels.
staff in roles that in mainstream schools may not traditionally have significant interaction with pupils clearly know the pupils as individuals.
I spend the first part of my visit looking around the school, visiting classrooms, meeting staff and exploring the grounds. Everything you’d expect to see is here: English classrooms, science labs, an art studio, a well-equipped D&T room, and a pastoral care base. There are also a few things one might not expect to see in a special school: a motorcross track and a ‘great hall’ (a beautifully preserved wood-panelled original feature of the building).
The atmosphere around the school is extremely calm, and it is clear from watching the staff that this is no accident. The boys have a comprehensive safety net around them here, ready - with a few quiet words in a hall way here, a raised eyebrow there and efficient use of walkie-talkies - to step in at any moment. The staff remain relaxed as they respond instantly, subtly and proportionately to the needs that the boys have in any given moment. This is seriously impressive stuff. Meetings are rearranged, consultations with pupils are set up in seconds, and the boys are supported to feel safe, heard and able to get on with their day. The flexibility of staff to respond in the best way possible to each pupil creates a trusting and respectful atmosphere. All staff play their part in maintaining this safety net; members of the senior leadership are out and about around the school, and staff in roles that in mainstream schools may not traditionally have significant interaction with pupils clearly know the pupils as individuals, sit with them at lunch and take an interest in how they are getting on.
Later in my visit I’m taken on a tour by a Year 9 student; he’s a keen cook – fish is his favourite - and he is currently growing peas and carrots in the garden. If you met this young man you might wonder why he attends a special school - he’s articulate, knowledgeable, confident and engaging - surely he’d be fine in a mainstream school? The thing is, it’s this placement that supports him to thrive, supports him to be this confident and engaging young person in a way that mainstream simply couldn’t. Most of the boys attending the school have been through failed mainstream placements, some of them multiple times, before securing a much-needed place at Breckenbrough, and several will have been through what one colleague described as “academic trauma”. One young man in a BBC interview I was shown stated that Breck, as it is fondly called by the boys, is “a school of second chances”.
When a child has the best chance of success and happiness in a residential setting why are these placements treated as the “last resort”? How can we make sure that every child can access the best provision for them without needing to experience exclusion, expulsions or other “academic trauma”?
Lets remember that not every child can thrive in mainstream and there must be high quality alternatives.
One thing that really shocked me from my visit (in fact I’m still cross about it) is how insecure the placements can feel to the boys, despite the school providing a safe, happy and secure home environment. A Local Authority can, and some do, decide to raise questions about whether a placement should continue. The day before GCSEs began, some pupils found out - from their parents - that their LA was reviewing the placement for Year 12.
The timing of this strikes me, at best of carelessness, and at worst of active sabotage. Can you imagine sitting your GCSEs having just found out that you might have to leave a school you love? With the participation age raised to 18, why cast doubt if a placement is working?
The behaviour of the LA in question here is possibly driven from concerns about cost. Yes, a residential placement costs more than a place in either a day special school or in a mainstream setting, but getting the right support to a young person that equips them to enter adulthood ready to live happily and make a positive contribution, is an investment.
As the spotlight has rightly turned in recent months on those mainstream schools that appear to be pushing out pupils with SEND, lets remember that not every child can thrive in mainstream and there must be high quality alternatives: Schools like Breckenbrough, where each individual child is pushed to achieve their best and supported to enter adulthood with confidence and independence. If the destination is still reached, maybe we should accept that there are different ways of taking the journey?
A film production involving characters from Star Wars took place during my visit. The young man playing Darth Vader went method and invited me to “come to the dark side” - I tried not to ruin the take.