School builds a bridge to sup­port stu­dents and turn its for­tunes around

South Wales Echo - - NEWS -

EAR­MARKED for clo­sure and deemed by in­spec­tors as “re­quir­ing sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment”, a trou­bled school has turned its per­for­mance around dra­mat­i­cally.

Mary Im­mac­u­late Ro­man Catholic High, a by­word for bad be­hav­iour a few years ago, now has more ap­pli­cants than places and par­ents writ­ing to the head­teacher lob­by­ing to get their chil­dren in.

The 780-pupil Cardiff school ad­mits on its own web­site that as re­cently as 2011 it faced “many chal­lenges” such as tru­ancy and ab­sen­teeism, while fixed-term ex­clu­sions were among the high­est in Wales.

To­day it now has lower than av­er­age fixed-term ex­clu­sions and is one of the few schools in Wales ranked the high­est green in per­for­mance colour-cod­ing for the en­tire four years the scheme has run.

The se­cret seems to be that it wasn’t just aca­demic stan­dards staff ad­dressed to re­verse the sit­u­a­tion.

Mea­sures to ad­dress ob­vi­ous be­havioural is­sues were only partly suc­cess­ful and staff re­alised what drove the school’s so­cial, emo­tional and be­havioural is­sues was “un­der­ly­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity”.

About 31% of stu­dents are en­ti­tled to free school meals, 15% have English as an ad­di­tional lan­guage, 30% have some kind of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tional need and twothirds of stu­dents are from the 20% most de­prived ar­eas of Wales.

In 2012, a pi­o­neer­ing pas­toral pro­gramme called The Bridge was opened to sup­port pupils and cre­ate bet­ter links with fam­i­lies.

Head­teacher Huw Pow­ell, who has been at the school nearly four years, says the scheme started by his pre­de­ces­sor and nur­tured by him has been in­stru­men­tal in chang­ing at­ti­tudes.

In 2011, a year be­fore The Bridge opened, the school, which takes pupils aged 11-16, made 250 fixed-term ex­clu­sions – that fig­ure now stands at 30 to 60 a year, says Richard Shore, who man­ages the pro­gramme.

In the past five years The Bridge, run by for­mer youth worker Richard and for­mer maths teacher Lar­raine Davey, has helped more than 500 pupils with be­spoke pack­ages of one-to-one sup­port for a range of is­sues which can af­fect learn­ing and be­hav­iour such as bul­ly­ing, be­reave­ment, fam­ily break-ups, con­fi­dence, self-es­teem, men­tal health prob­lems and other so­cial trig­gers.

Its aim is to keep stu­dents and fam­i­lies en­gaged in learn­ing by ad­dress­ing these is­sues, rather than los­ing pupils to ab­sence and ex­clu­sions, says Mr Pow­ell.

The Bridge runs from a class­room trans­formed to mimic a home and learn­ing space di­vided up into a kitchen area with a ta­ble to talk at, a sit­ting space with com­fort­able chairs, a small of­fice and a sec­tion with books and board games. About 60 pupils get one-to-one help at any one time but any pupil can drop in.

Be­hind an or­di­nary class­room door the area is a world away from what can be the stress­ful bus­tle of school life.

A ra­dio plays softly to cre­ate a homely, wel­com­ing at­mos­phere. There is free tea and cof­fee, and toast is also pro­vided “for pupils whose lives may have im­ploded be­fore they had a chance to have break­fast”, says Lar­raine.

“Any­one at any time can be­come vul­ner­a­ble for a num­ber of rea­sons,” she stresses. “A pupil could be deal­ing with a fam­ily di­ag­no­sis of long-term sick­ness, lack of self-es­teem, body con­fi­dence, any num­ber of rea­sons.

“We live in a world of so­cial me­dia and some young peo­ple lack the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate face to face and read sig­nals of body lan­guage.”

To ad­dress this, pupils are en­cour­aged to chat in sit­u­a­tions such as learn­ing to play cards and board games where talk can feel more nat­u­ral and less threat­en­ing.

When a pupil is re­ferred by teach­ers for ses­sions at The Bridge, par­ents are kept in­formed and get weekly up­dates. But with some hav­ing neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of school them­selves, it’s es­sen­tial to change their per­cep­tions, says Richard.

“Work­ing with par­ents is an im­por­tant part of our role. We build re­la­tion­ships, make home vis­its and ask par­ents in for cof­fee. A lot of par­ents are con­cerned be­ing at The Bridge is a la­bel of bad be­hav­iour, but it’s not – we see kids who have never been in trou­ble but need sup­port. To get pupils en­gaged, we have to get par­ents en­gaged.”

As Lar­raine puts it: “We have changed the mind­set of par­ents that it’s the school against par­ents. They can see it’s a team ef­fort, whereas be­fore it was us and them.

“A lot of the pupils we’ve helped would have ended up Neet [not in ed­u­ca­tion, em­ploy­ment or train­ing] be­cause of be­havioural is­sues or in­abil­ity to cope. We tackle bar­ri­ers to learn­ing which can be an in­abil­ity to work or cope with life.”

While the school still has a sep­a­rate ex­clu­sion room, un­con­nected to The Bridge, that room is used less now.

“That’s down to us. We man­age things in­side rather than ex­clud­ing,” says Richard. “But this is a unique pro­gramme. It is not about be­hav­iour. Our job is not to get them good GCSEs but to give them tools for life and be able to sit in a class­room.

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