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