Forest Academy in Croydon has achieved Centre of Excellence status for the second time.
The review was carried out virtually due to the COVID-19 situation, but the SEN Coordinator had organised a very detailed schedule for me to find out about the work of the school. We started off the day by talking about what had happened during lockdown and she told me that staff worked on a rota system providing care for vulnerable and key worker children. The country and the school went into lockdown in March and the school joined the Inspire Partnership on 1st April – so there was a lot of change during this time.
Positive and Supportive
The SENCO was clear that becoming one of the Inspire schools was a very positive and supportive move. She mentioned the SENCO Hub and all the training and development for staff at all levels as being some of the key benefits for the Inclusion Team.
Currently there are two children with EHC Plans but the school is applying for two others. There are thirty (16%) children on the SEN register most with communication, speech and language needs as well as social and emotional vulnerabilities. There are fifteen Teaching Assistants and Learning Support Assistant as each class has a dedicated TA and LSAs provide individual support for named children. Mobility is high in the school with a number of pupils moving in and out of the area for various reasons. However, the school is very experienced at managing and achieving good outcomes for these pupils.
Complicated Governance Arrangements
The arrangements for governance are complicated by the fact that there is a Trust Board, but the school is still served by a local Governing Board who carry out many of the expected governor functions. There is a very experienced SEN Governor, and she has been very helpful and supportive of the SENCO and the school. Annual reviews and meetings involving different professionals and agencies happened (and are still happening) via Zoom and those children who were receiving one-to-one support were able to access this through Zoom during lockdown. The school also works with a local special school in order to seek specialist advice and support when necessary.
Transition to a New Trust
My next meeting was with the Interim Headteacher and Associate Head. The Interim Head has been working with the school during the transition from one Trust to another. She was originally a Headteacher and then became a Consultant Head with the Inspire Partnership. She is now based solely in Forest Academy and feels very connected to its pupils and staff and community. She now works alongside the Associate Head who has been working at the school for six years. The two make a good Co-Headship Team and until very recently shared an office. They told me that they have been very lucky so far that they have not had to close any bubbles. They have the usual COVID-19 measures in place and take great care to avoid infection. However, they are aware that this may happen at any time. The Trust took over on 1st April and lockdown had started on 23rd March but together they led the school through these major changes very effectively.
Supporting During COVID
The Designated Safeguarding Lead told me what had happened during lockdown. Small numbers of vulnerable and key workers children attended the provision and more and more arrived as parents felt more confident to send their children to school. Staff came to school on a rota basis to supervise and manage the children, others were working a lot from home. Much of the work set for pupils was planned centrally and put online for parents to access from home and mindful of the fact that many families had no access to appropriate devices or the internet, hard copies were collected by parents from school. The vulnerable children were contacted more often than others and they used CPOMS to make a record of the conversations staff were having with children and families. If they were unable to make contact then a home visit was done.
Supporting Mental Health
In terms of helping children to deal with their anxieties there are worry boxes in classroom and ‘Talk Through Times’ run by the Place to Be. Part of the Recovery Curriculum is around exploring what might have happened during lockdown and they use a variety of approaches to get children talking. A new development is additional time for PE , there are now two sessions a week in order to get children outside and to help to get them get fitter. They have just employed a gymnastics coach and already had sports coaches to increase activity levels. The school is very lucky to have extensive outdoor spaces for children to play and for sports.
The Associate Head told me that parents are so grateful to have children back in school and are very supportive. The weekly phone call home (in lockdown) helped to build positive relationships and the team are on gate every day so any problems or concerns are picked up quickly and are sorted. Although they hope it will not happen the school, is getting ready to deliver online learning to children in bubbles who need to be sent home to isolate or indeed if they need to close the school at any point. I was told that the staff meeting that evening is on using Google Classroom and teachers have started by uploading homework and children can then practice logging in at home. There are videos to help show them how to use this platform as a planning tool and the school is currently being prepared for parents supporting their children at home. During lockdown teachers recorded parts of lessons in phonics and Maths and they recorded stories and posted these on the school website.
The Safeguarding Lead and the Headteacher told me at the end of the summer term teachers did the ‘handover’ from class teacher to class teacher over Zoom and teachers and Teaching Assistant made videos for their new classes to introduce themselves to their new pupils. The school made great efforts to get the new Reception class off to a good start and they enabled parents and children to come in in small groups for an hour or two a day, so the children were settled quickly and start full time the following week. To complicate the situation further the Early Years Team moved to a new smaller space during lockdown, this was a positive move as although the space is smaller it is easier to manage.
The Inspire Partnership provides lots of CPD opportunities for all staff and they now have the opportunity to work with staff in other schools in the Trust. Although the school budget is top sliced for a contribution to central trust funds the Head says they get value for money. The Human Resources facility is particularly useful and is always available to answer queries. The CEO of the Trust is very approachable and a Trust Executive Head is soon to support the school further by having a fortnightly meeting with the Head and by helping to guide the school as it moves forward. The partnership have a system of internal reviews and the feedback from these have been very useful for the Senior Team working with their staff on improving the quality of teaching across the school. However, the recent review did not find anything they did not already know but nonetheless it is a helpful experience.
Happy to be Back at School
I had two opportunities to meet the pupils during my virtual visit and I met with two groups of four pupils, one group of KS1 pupils and one group of Year 2 pupils. We spoke about their experience during lockdown and since they came back to school. They were universally delighted to be back in school and although some things had changed they loved being back with their friends and their teachers. Most said it was difficult to work at home, as they got distracted by their siblings and it was hard to concentrate with so many other distractions. Some of the children said it was fun to be at home and to spend time with their family but others said it was boring.
Happy with Their Teachers
The Key Stage 2 pupils said they had lots of work to do at home and they (mostly) worked hard completing the work set. They were worried that they would forget all they had learned before lockdown but their teachers have reassured them since they have been back at school and have been going over things they had done before to make sure they have not forgotten as much as they think. They said parents are not as good as teachers – at teaching! However, they are worried about SATS.
Making Learning Fun
The children told me about the things that made the Forest Academy a great school to attend and they had a long list of subjects but then turned to the teachers who they say are friendly and they make learning fun. “They help you when you need help.” They like making new friends and they think the school is a kind place. They told me that there was no bullying but if they were worried about anything they would talk to their teachers or a teaching assistant and would ask for help. If they were very anxious they would go to talk at The Place to Be which they said was really helpful in helping them to talk through what was worrying them. They said they would make sure a new pupil arriving at the school would be made welcome and they would play with them and help them. They would look after them and be kind as they thought it might be a bit scary starting a new school.
Communication is Really Good
My next meeting was with a group of teachers and teaching assistants. Three had been at the school for many years , particularly the Teaching Assistants who had been there for a very long time. One of the teachers had joined the school in September. I started by asking them what it was like being in the school since joining the Inspire Trust. Universal opinion was that things were much improved in all areas including the curriculum and progression. They said Inspire are far more supportive and they know more about what is happening. Communication within the school and across the Trust is really good. The Teaching Assistants said that they now had far more training than ever before and they feel their contribution is valued. The teachers spoke about the curriculum, which they said they can adapt and change for their class. They can add their own ideas and can be creative. They do not feel restricted by the curriculum or new planning formats. Instead they feel secure in the new partnership and feel their jobs are now more manageable.
During lockdown staff were put into groups and worked on a rota system coming into school to run the key worker and vulnerable children. People adapted very quickly and just got on with what they had to do. They said the leadership were very supportive and they were told if they were anxious we could talk to someone. Furthermore, SLT had a one-to-one meeting (via Zoom) with everybody to check on their wellbeing. Home learning packs were used to begin with based on the topics which pupils would have been learning in normal circumstances. The TAs worked with the teachers and prepared resources for pupils with SEN. All members had detailed risk assessment and one member of staff who is asthmatic had a personal risk assessment. There were no live lessons for various reasons but they mentioned it at the staff meeting that evening and one of the teachers who has lots of experience and expertise in using Google Classroom is facilitating the workshop and there will be guidelines for everybody. Currently there are work packs on the shared server for children who are at home self-isolating.
The Recovery Curriculum
Baseline testing happened in the first week back but not under test conditions, assessments were just ‘sprinkled’ throughout the week, so children did not realise they were being tested. It was important to do this to get a clear picture about what they could or could not do and what they had retained during lockdown. Teachers planning includes recapping the end of year maths to ensure they address the gaps. The gaps are better than expected as children are very adaptable. The recovery curriculum is planned to remind them about what they learned previously and to build on that.
Both teachers and Teaching Assistants felt their voice is heard and they are listened to, they can question things and are always treated with respect. It helps that members of SLT are also in class and they are ‘real’ teachers who can relate to what is happening in classrooms across the school. They have been to other Inspire schools and visited classrooms (before they officially joined the Trust) and they found this to be a very powerful experience.
Positive with a “Can Do” Attitude
It is clear that staff at the school feel valued and cared for, their professionalism is respected, and they feel fully included in the school and within the Inspire Partnership. They are ready for whatever comes next and will deal with any further lockdown or crisis as it arises, they are very positive and have a can-do attitude.
Provision for Vulnerable Children
The Pupil and Family Support Worker described her role, which is to look at children and what is happening at home. We talked about the work that had gone on during lockdown including the provision made for vulnerable and as key workers children. The list was a long one. Providing laptops for children is not a particularly useful action if the parents do not have the money to pay for electricity or broadband.
Very Few Persistent Absentees
Despite the high pupil mobility, the attendance officer told me (very firmly) they do not lose any child and she said, “I would not rest if I did not know where they had gone to”. She tracks them down and nobody is taken off role unless she has evidence of where they have moved to and which school they are now attending. She has developed strong relationships with parents and attendance figures are very high. Where there are issues and if children are not turning up at school they will receive a home visit, so there are very few persistent absentees.
Supportive and Inclusive
Forest Academy has had a difficult journey in the past but is clearly rising above their former difficulties. It is a supportive and inclusive school for pupils and staff and it goes to great lengths to support families. The expectations for all stakeholders are high and there is a can-do attitude. The school is leading very well and has benefited from being part of the Inspire Partnership. Despite the current circumstances in terms of COVID-19, the school is going from strength to strength and together they can break down the barriers and move forward to the next stage of their development. They have much to be proud of.
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