'They have given us a second chance' - School's innovative solution for children at risk of exclusion
PUBLISHED: 06:00 27 January 2019 | UPDATED: 10:09 28 January 2019
A west Norfolk school is blazing a trail in care and education for children on the verge of exclusion with a groundbreaking £200,000 centre - where pupils say they are given "a second chance".
Forward Step at King’s Lynn Academy opened in September 2018 to provide a learning space for pupils at risk of being excluded, as part of a long-term plan to improve behaviour and performance across the school.
Built in a former classroom block, the centre currently has 22 students taking all or most of their lessons there while they work towards reintegrating into the main school.
A ‘last resort’
Principal Alan Fletcher says the entire school is reaping benefits, as well as the pupils at the centre who may otherwise have been forced out of education.
King’s Lynn Academy was in special measures when Mr Fletcher took the helm in September 2017. He immediately began work to improve behaviour, absence levels and exclusion rates.
“We had to get kids in a place where the climate for learning meant they were able to learn,” he said.
“There is not a great amount of alternative provision around here, so we decided we needed to do something for ourselves.”
His next goal was to open Forward Step, designed as a “last resort” for pupils at risk of exclusion after other intervention options have been exhausted.
His ultimate aim is for the school to become “zero-exclusion” – and one term in, the centre is already helping the school towards this target.
In the 2017-18 academic year, 311 fixed-term exclusions were handed out to pupils and five students were permanently excluded. So far this year, just 30 fixed-term exclusions have been served.
Mr Fletcher said: “With an exclusion we are rewarding their poor behaviour by giving them a day off. We can exclude the same child for a long period of time which is not helping them to prepare for the world of work.”
A day in Forward Step
Forward Step is staffed by teachers and teaching assistants from King’s Lynn Academy plus a counsellor trained in mental health first aid.
The students, many of whom have difficult home lives or mental health problems, study English, maths and science as well as PE, art, food and hygiene, and a BTEC in finance.
They cook and eat meals together in the centre’s kitchen with rotas for cooking and washing up.
Each student has a six-week plan to get them from Forward Step back into main school – the ultimate goal of any placement – which their parents can help inform.
Elanor Westbury, vice principal, behaviour, safety and welfare, herself a former King’s Lynn Academy pupil, said ensuring that parents supported the centre was vital.
“Our community believe in us. We have worked with them really closely and I think the number of applications is testament to that,” she said.
“We have had two students in year nine successfully reintegrate into main school. They are transformed characters. In a very short space of time we have had turnarounds for students who would have grown more and more disengaged with school.”
She added: “The nurturing environment at Forward Step helps students and parents. They are willing to knock on the door and have a conversation. The parental engagement is much better now which means we know about things that are happening at home.”
Courtney, 14, has been attending lessons at Forward Step since it opened.
She said: “I love the teachers, they work so hard. They are doing lessons they are not meant to do, but they will do whatever they can to help us. We are always their main priority.
“We are kind of lucky we have Forward Step, because we were all on the edge of being kicked out and they have given us a second chance.”
Benefits for everyone
Mr Fletcher said the opening of Forward Step coincided with a “dramatic” improvement in behaviour in the main school.
Attendance is also rising – after being below the national average last year it has risen to 94.8pc, while rates of persistent absence are also falling.
The school is also reaping the benefits in terms of applications and is oversubscribed for the 2019-20 academic year.
Duncan Ramsey, chief executive of the Eastern Multi-Academy Trust, which runs King’s Lynn Academy, said: “The school has its challenges and Alan wanted to get on board those pupils who are disaffected in school.
“Alan had a vision of an area that would support those pupils and support the families which I believe is a real strength.
“As a trust we agreed and supported it and backed it with £200,000 of cash to build the centre and staff it.
“The aim was to create an environment where we could reduce permanent exclusions, give time and space to students who struggle in main school and engage the community.”
Mr Fletcher said Forward Step may eventually take on students at risk of exclusion from other schools. “For me this school has always been very strong in pastoral care. For those ‘managed move’ kids we are the right place.”
‘We are pushing hard to get to a better place’
The school’s efforts to help the most disadvantaged and difficult students have seen it take a knock in official rankings.
In secondary school league tables released this week it was among the worst-performing schools in the country, with a Progress 8 score of -0.81.
But Ofsted recognised its work during a visit in October, with inspectors complimenting the new exclusion centre and noting “sustained improvements” in behaviour.
While the school is still ranked as “requires improvement”, the effectiveness of leadership and management and pupil development, behaviour and welfare were rated “good”.
Mr Fletcher said: “We have a lot of work ahead of us. We are two years in to what is in my mind a six-year turnaround. If we carry on for the next four years as we have for the past two there is no reason why we cannot be outstanding.
“It was traditionally the ‘sink school’ but we are pushing hard to get it to a better place.”
Mr Ramsey added: “Alan is putting students first rather than the system and I think it is really starting to pay dividends.”