We all belong

With the situation for SEND pupils – in terms of facilities and funding – in England’s schools increasingly under the microscope, Nell Walker spoke to Alison Helm, headteacher at North Beckton Primary School, about the much-needed upgrades she has been able to make to the school thanks, in part, to a progressive and supportive borough council

Making major changes at a school – be they to do with people, geography or infrastructure – are never easy, but nothing important ever is. Currently, provision for pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) are about as important as it gets in terms of priorities for schools. The funding shortfall for these pupils keeps growing, and they are the ones who suffer as their families fight the good fight.

Last October three families launched a landmark legal challenge over funding of pupils with SEND, and lost their case, while experts continue to comment that support for SEND children is ‘in crisis’. Meanwhile, ombudsman Michael King stated that the number of complaints from parents relating to special educational issues rose by 45% between 2017 and 2019.

Many schools are attempting to improve their facilities for these pupils,  and make the environment more inclusive, as a result of growing need; while some are slowed down by lack of funding, some are, thankfully, able to forge ahead and inspire. North Beckton Primary School in Newham is currently undertaking a large-scale renovation which sees it investing heavily in its profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) pupils, working closely with the borough to create both inclusive curriculum and facilities that will benefit everybody – no matter their ability level.

The new unit being built will house one large classroom and multiple feeder classrooms; this set-up will include a sensory room, supported by Variety, the Children’s Charity, and areas for physiotherapy, counselling, storage spaces and music therapy, all of which will be fully wheelchair accessible, kitted out with hoists and plenty of toilets and changing stations.

On speaking to Alison Helm, the headteacher at North Beckton, she is quite frank about what originally prompted the desire to make this renovation. “The school received two ‘requires improvement’ Ofsted inspections, and one of the things that came out of these was the vision for PMLD children,” she explains.

“It was clear that the building was insufficient to meet the needs of these pupils; it was outdated, not fit-for-purpose and there was a lack of changing facilities. The building was 25 years old and not designed for modern needs, and it meant that these children’s personal targets weren’t being met.”

These details were brought into stark relief in the Ofsted reports, including the fact that children – and staff – were losing a lot of time due to slow transfers between buildings. During this time of reflection Alison kick-started the conversation around how to ensure that North Beckton had the best facilities possible for 21st century learning.

A fully-inclusive space

The space that’s being renovated was basically unused, despite being right at the heart of the school. North Beckton currently has 10 PMLD attending but, soon, it will be able to cater for up to 16. Of course, all these facilities will also be accessible to the other pupils across the school – full inclusion is vitally important, after all – and Alison foresees this major change impacting pupils long-term.

“Our school ethos is ‘We all belong’; this message is at the heart of the school and everything it does,” she explains. “While this renovation is about improving the outcomes of pupils with SEND, it’s also about supporting other children in understanding the needs of people within their community, and celebrating that these children are at the heart of our learning community in a wider sense. Obviously, there will be improved outcomes for pupils with SEND in terms of the teaching facilities and stimulating learning environment, but we have this vision of an inclusive model.”

Alison’s proposed model centres on being a leading, inclusive school in PMLD provision, which she’s keen to share across Newham, as well as other schools across the UK educating SEND pupils. She aims to create partnerships with other schools that have similar needs, and wants to encourage their staff to come in and see, first-hand, the difference they can make. Clearly – and rightly so – Alison is extremely optimistic about the impact this renovation will have.

Putting the plan into action

Newham is a diverse borough, in every sense, and is making a particularly strong drive towards SEND inclusion with its own inclusive model. Newham has, historically, aimed to give particular care to its special needs pupils – so, when Alison approached the borough council with her plan for North Beckton, accompanied by a determination to provide the best possible education and support to PLMD pupils, the council was in complete agreement and fully supportive.

“These are the most vulnerable children in our local authority,” Alison explains, “and, therefore, they need the highest quality provision available to them. This was part of our discussion with Newham; we pointed out that our pupils were stuck in a portakabin, and this was unacceptable, whereas this facility not only gives them everything they need, but also opens up opportunities for the borough at large.”

Most important for Alison isn’t providing the facilities pupils need, or allowing them a broader education – it’s enabling them to ‘dream big’. “I think what’s really important is this idea of raising aspirations for children and their parents, and celebrating the successes of these children,” she says. The ongoing improvement in outcomes for children in mainstream education is a widely-accepted part of everyday life but, culturally, we don’t always apply this to our SEND or PMLD pupils. Quite simply, this is wrong.

“These children might be looked at in a certain way, and underestimated,” Alison admits. “We have certain impressions of what they’re capable of but, actually, through the work we’ve been doing, these children are capable of amazing things. Pupils who couldn’t walk can now do so, for example, and children who were once very reluctant to board a bus now look forward to school trips. I think it’s important to celebrate the achievements of these pupils in a public way – it’s wonderful to challenge people’s assumptions.”

A glimpse at the future

While the renovation of North Beckton is, in itself, very impressive, it’s the maintenance of the unit that will prove the biggest challenge – one which Alison is ready for. She has only glowing reviews of her school’s staff, and the support of the wider borough certainly helps when it comes to the long-term running of this part of the school. “We give our staff autism training, which is accredited by the Autism Society, and we share lots of SEND expertise amongst teachers and specialist support staff alike,” Alison explains.

“It’s important that it’s not just the teachers, as there are a lot of support staff involved who work very closely with the children, so they have to have the right level of support, too.” Importantly, this training will be topped up, and regularly improved upon, and Alison is proud to add that the staff coming in to work within the new unit – both pre-existing and new – are excited about the work they’re going to be able to do.

“They’re raring to go – we just want it built now!” she says. “That goes for the pupils, too. We’re confident that the space we are creating for PMLD students will be exceptional, so we can’t wait to unveil it.”

Stats and facts
Age range: 3-11

Pupils attending (total): 560

Pupils attending (PMLD): 10 (with room for 16)

Pupils eligible for Pupil Premium: 25%

Reading scores: Average

Writing scores: Above average

Maths scores: Well above average

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