Paint and payback: Fostering pride in a transient student cohort

As the new site manager at Lansdown Park School, Bristol, Nick Farrow faced a dangerous and neglected building in which to educate some of the city’s most vulnerable and challenging children.  Here he explains the decisions he made with a limited budget and how he’s using his practical talents and love of the outdoors to expand his role to work directly with young people

Originally a primary school, Lansdown Park School – on the edge of south Bristol – had been operating as a pupil referral unit for several years. The building had never been fully fit-for-purpose and when I joined in August 2016 it was in a very poor state. It looked like a run-down community centre and had unsecured stud walls, exposed live wires, holes in the walls and ceilings, too much free-flow through the school and outdoor areas and none of the damaged IT had been replaced. The ambience was depressing for staff and students with drab and dirty off-white walls, lack of communication-friendly signage and old-fashioned toilets.

Lansdown Park provides short-term placements for up to 38 students, mostly boys. Young people come to us because they’ve been permanently excluded or are not managing in their primary or secondary schools. Our aim is to find a path for them back into mainstream education or other suitable provision through intensive support and behaviour management – often investigating unmet special educational needs. Many of the students have not had the best start to their education for reasons that are not their fault; my brief was to create a safe and welcoming learning environment while recognising that the school was developing to serve younger pupils.

First thing’s first: health and safety

Our key first step was to commission an independent health and safety report that confirmed our immediate safety priorities encompassing new corridor doors, secured electrics, updated fire and security systems and outdoor fencing. However, this only addressed immediate safety concerns; my long-term project was to make the school friendly, clean and to create an environment which staff and students would be proud to work in.

Our next steps included:

Signage: the building was an anonymous structure in the community so we commissioned a local graphics company to create some attractive and informative signs.

Communication friendly rooms, corridors and communal areas: as many students have unrecognised additional learning needs, often with difficulties in speech and language, we made sure that internal information boards and signs included attractive images and symbols.

IT: we refurbished our electronic learning suite and provided flat screen televisions and shuttle PCs for teachers in classrooms – these have all been respected and not deliberately damaged in the last year.

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Facilities: New one-person use toilets

Paint: neighbours thanked us for freshening up the exterior and a new, calm, pastel internal colour scheme had a positive effect on both pupils and staff.

Repairs, payback and work experience

Pupil referral units suffer more wear and tear than most schools – we’re often dealing with students in crisis and behaviour can be unpredictable. To help keep the school in a respectable condition we now have a rolling programme of attending to repairs before the next school day. This includes the use of harder wearing materials and a damages repayment system where families have agreed to fund a percentage of any repairs due to student behaviour. I also run a ‘work experience’ programme so students can help me with certain jobs around the school. Together, these changes have helped foster a sense of respect for the school environment and significantly reduced the amount of damage previously experienced.

In the space of a year we’ve been able to make our school safe, secure and more welcoming for staff and students. Coming from a background in graphic design and carpentry, it’s been highly rewarding and, personally, I’ve enjoyed the mix of creativity and practical tasks where the benefits can be seen right in front of me everyday.

Working with students – forest school

From September I’ll be leading small groups in an on-site forest school, developing practical and social skills for students such as independence, empathy, self-regulation and trust – all proven positives of the forest school ethos. After Go Wild training via The Forest of Avon Trust I’ll be qualified to run small group sessions. I’ve not met any other site managers who also work directly with children in this way and I’m looking forward to sharing my love of the outdoors.

We lead increasing insular and sedentary lifestyles with far less opportunity (or inclination) for children to play outside due to many reasons – risk aversion, stranger danger, tablet culture – which weren’t an issue when I was growing up in the 1980s. I feel it’s really important that we try to inspire children to look after the natural world and, by allowing them to come into regular contact with nature, enable them to explore, play, learn and develop at their own pace in a child-centred manner.

This addition to my site manager role will help me encourage young people to respect nature and, hopefully, they will benefit – as I did – into their adult lives.

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