TSP Briefing
Issue 8
Nov 2014

Issue eight: The SEND Practitioner

The SEND Practitioner
Issue eight
Channel Four’s Educating the East End and the SEN landscape
November 2014
A Q&A with Frederick Bremer’s deputy head and SENCO


Towards the end of October, my partner and her teaching colleagues were crestfallen when Educating the East End aired its final episode. I hadn’t seen it, but I had been aware of it. I had read heart-warming reviews about the brilliance of this Walthamstow comprehensive school in the national press; and had been told by a producer friend that this is how fly-on-the-wall TV should be made. So, when my director mentioned that he might just be able to wangle an interview with one of the stars of the show, I jumped at the chance.

It was a revelation and a joy to discover that Educating the East End is the most wonderful antidote to reality TV imaginable and a break from the go-getting obsession with ‘self’ that is the mark of much of this genre. In contrast, this series celebrates the vital importance of schools, pupils, and the communities that they serve. From senior management, to school staff; from pupils, to parents; Educating the East End is a singular triumph that champions the nurturing power of a school that really does place the pupil at the heart of everything. To bear witness to the school’s holistic approach and to see the joy that its staff and pupils gleaned from each other was a rare privilege. To see the progress that each pupil made whatever their background, ability, or disability was remarkable.

Against a landscape of ever-present change in education, it is genuinely inspiring to see what a pupil-centred approach really looks like. To speak to Frederick Bremer’s deputy head (Emma Hillman) and SENCO (Francesca Richards) and realise that this has also enabled them to navigate the SEN reforms relatively easily was instructive. I hope that you find this piece illuminating. I also hope that, if you haven’t already seen the series, then you might take a little time over Christmas to sit down and watch an episode or two. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Kind regards,

Edward Farrow

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In this issue:

About Educating the East End

Educating the East End: A Q&A with Frederick Bremer’s deputy head and SENCO

The stars of Educating the East End

About Emma Hillman

About Francesca Richards

About Educating the East End 

For 37 days, 65 cameras recorded the trials and tribulations of staff and students at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow, east London. Based on the BAFTA-award winning 2011 Educating Essex, the first of eight one-hour weekly episodes was broadcast on 4 September 2014 to critical acclaim.

“[It] leaves us in awe of the individuals who sacrifice their time, and often their sanity, to give back.”
Susanna Lazarus, Radio Times

If you missed it, you can watch all of the episodes on 4oD.
Educating the East End
A Q&A with Frederick Bremer’s deputy head and SENCO
After rigging your school with cameras for 37 days, does Ofsted hold any fear for you?

Emma Hillman (deputy head): “I had two cameras in my office and, somewhat sadly, I can still see the holes in the walls where the cameras were. However, believe it or not, you do actually forget about the cameras. Of course, in the first few days, the staff and students did look positively more glamorous than they ever do. But, yes, after the first few days, you just forget about them really. Ofsted-wise, we’re more Ofsted-ready than we’ve ever been. We have our own Ofsted quality assurance procedures and we’ve just had a ‘mini-Ofsted’. We’ve got our action plan ready so when that phone rings, we will spring into action like a beautifully oiled machine. In fact, this year, we are really confident that we are going to get our best results ever and that, most importantly, our students will be really equipped for the future.”

Francesca Richards (SENCO): “Yes, I agree with Emma. It was normalised really. You had to get on with teaching and simply live your life knowing that the cameras were on you all the time.”

Emma Hillman: “No one acted up to the cameras and the production staff added loads to the community. They were exciting, creative and engaging people and the pupils and staff liked having them around. We miss them now that they’ve gone.”

Emma Hillman’s words in Educating the East End

“Resilience is one of the best qualities that you can give children and they’ve got to find resilience.”

“Halil has choices about who he wants to be his role models and needs to realise that successful people aren’t the people who he thinks they are.”

What I find remarkable, is that, throughout the series, your quotes and your colleagues’ quotes, reflect a whole-school approach that’s overwhelmingly supportive and, most critically, pupil-focused. It places the child at the heart of everything – whatever their level of ability. How have you got to that place? How have you organised your roles to realise such an effective approach?

Emma Hillman: “We are a proud community school. Our pupils come from our doorstep. This community is riddled with city issues: poverty, overcrowding, unemployment. So we want these children to leave this school with every chance that other pupils have from other areas in different social and financial circumstances. We are also lucky to have such an amazing group of teachers and support staff – who are committed to doing all of the pastoral stuff that you saw on the programme.

“I’ve worked in four London schools and the children in this school are the funniest and most entertaining that I have taught. They’re gutsy and resilient and they deserve life chances. When Jenny (our head teacher) came in, one of the first things that we did was to restructure the inclusion department. So, we have home/school workers, behaviour mentors and learning mentors who help to support each and every child. So, it’s a really child-centred approach that runs from senior management to every single member of staff across the school.”

Has your whole-school/child-centred approach meant that you’ve been able to navigate the SEN reforms quite easily?

Francesca Richards: “Yes, it’s been pretty smooth for us. This is because a lot of our SEN practices were already person-centred. For example, our annual statement reviews already constructed a person-centred approach that puts the child and the child’s voice at the heart of the process, alongside rigorous support systems that foster this child-centred approach. So, the practice that we have put in place has allowed us to adapt to the changes quite easily.”

Emma Hillman: “Yes, I agree. We have adapted well because we have got onto it very early. We are a person-centred school with a very person-centred LA (Waltham Forest). We were writing and shaping our SEN policy over the summer holidays and we have a governors’ sub-committee ratifying our policy tonight. On the first day of term, we also commandeered a whole training day where staff spoke about SEN and where our SENCO (Francesca) outlined that her new role and responsibilities would consist of checking and supporting staff SEN practice, not doing it for them.

“At the end of the day we all shared a lovely moment. We watched a film of our new pupils with statements (shot at the end of the previous summer term) talk about their strengths, weaknesses, how they like to learn, who they were, what they liked and what they didn’t like. And the power of this approach, is that it imprinted the importance of each child’s individuality and needs (and our child-centred approach) on every single member of staff before the start of term from 1 September.

“To add to this, Francesca worked incredibly hard to make sure that all of our SEN information was available to staff, including the new Year 7s, from the first day of term. She ensured that every single profile had been written, so that staff were able to start planning the learning for each student from the outset. It was a monumental task but worth every moment spent.”

Did Francesca get any sleep?

Francesca Richards: “I got a few nights, yes. But it was all worthwhile and staff feedback has been very positive. We’ve always had an inclusive ethos but, this year, many staff have been knocking at my door, sending me emails and coming to talk to me about the needs of individual students. Our staff simply want to get it right for students and that’s wonderful.”

Emma Hillman: “We’ve also got a really good quality assurance cycle, a process called: ‘in search of good practice’. We regularly walk around the school looking for good SEN practice. When we find some we celebrate it and communicate it through our monthly bulletin. The bulletin is child- and staff-centred and really helps teachers to understand that SEN practice is down to them; that they’ve got to plan and do; and that the SENCO is there to support them, not do it for them. Our staff are very aware that it’s their responsibility and that’s what we expect to see in the classroom.”

Have your day-to-day responsibilities changed since the SEN reforms ‘kicked in’?

Francesca Richards: “Yes, there have been adjustments. I took over the SENCO role this September and have been looking at implementing the new Code of Practice alongside broader practical and procedural change that was not in place in the department already. So, this term, I have been embedding sustainable assessment, in-class support and intervention practices by going into classrooms, watching what’s working and planning with teachers to make sure that students’ needs are being met in the classroom. At present, we may lack time to do all of the detailed planning, but an inclusive approach combined with effective classroom support (particularly in maths and English) means that we are able to meet the needs of our students.

“I’ve just carried out a cycle of research on practice walks by targeting English and maths classes. I’ve followed up these walks with meetings with the class teacher and the TA and have given them practical feedback that they can apply in their daily planning. So, much more of my time is going into ensuring that the teacher is responsible and accountable, and, at the same time, is able to receive the right support to meet the needs of their students.”

Emma Hillman: “I mostly let Fran and her team get on with it. It’s probably the first time where I’ve been in a situation where I have absolute confidence that things are happening. Our TA team is also really strong. We appointed two HLTAs as part of the restructure and they are incredibly good quality. The structure, in terms of the line and performance management is sound. The HLTAs do an awful lot for the TAs and I think that they are really good at developing a team approach. So, I feel that we’ve got the structures right and when you get the structures right you have happy staff.”

How would you advise SENCOs and/or SMTs to adapt to this legislative landscape? What steps should they take?

Emma Hillman: “Plan early, but don’t panic! It’s important to make sensible and rational decisions without rushing into things. It’s vital to remember that the key role of the SENCO is to make sure that your teachers understand what it is that they need to do and in this role the SENCO becomes a challenger, a critical friend and a facilitator. You also need to think about the impact of your intervention and have a really robust intervention process. Most importantly, if it ain’t working and you aren’t seeing results then stop doing it and do something else. Under the new Code, you’ve got to act quickly and see impact and results.”

Francesca Richards: “I agree. Remember, it’s ‘from 1 September’, not ‘by 1 September’. You need to make the right decisions in the long term, so don’t rush these essential decisions. Plan, put systems in place, give those systems time to embed, evaluate them and adjust them accordingly. I also feel very fortunate to have representation on the senior leadership team (SLT). This not only means that I have a voice – through Emma – at the highest level, but has also given me the opportunity to speak to other SENCOs at other schools to fine-tune best practice in the wake of the new Code.”

Emma Hillman: “Yes, we have to do that here, as there are many children on statements and with SEN. I’ve trained and worked as an educational psychologist, a SENCO and have a good deal of experience of working in inclusion, so I will always advocate representation on the SLT. Ideally, one day, I would like to see a world where each SENCO is on the SLT.”

Christopher’s story (image above)

Christopher is one of a number of students with autism at Frederick Bremer. In the eighth episode, we discover a bright, charismatic and much-loved pupil on the cusp of transition in Year 10. Through the exceptional pupil-centred support of TAs, teachers and the whole school, we watch as staff nurture and prepare him for life beyond the school walls.

In Christopher’s words

“When I was a lot younger, people used to ridicule me, judge me, use words like retarded and disabled, a lot of things. I always wondered what it was like to be normal. But this term ‘normal’, I think it’s just manmade.”

“I’ve just realised something. The more you’re afraid of something, the more exciting the situation could probably be.”

Christopher’s story (in the final programme of the series) is symptomatic of your school’s pupil-centred/whole-school approach, i.e. thinking outside of the box and putting pupil progress, development and security at the heart of everything. How do you do it? What’s the secret?

Emma Hillman: “We are a solution-focused school. The head teacher is very clear about this and insists that we shouldn’t bring problems to people. She insists that, when you’re in line management, you manage in a solution-focused way. So you shouldn’t make problems for those who line manage you and you should always seek solutions for those who you manage. It’s a very good way to unstick things and to think outside of the box. We allow people to take risks, so long as they come up with a solution that is creative and has impact. Because, simply put, we’re a very creative school.

“We have four periods every week called STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths). This, I feel, hints at the heart of our creative, solution-focused approach. STEAM is project-based, our pupils don’t have traditional subject lessons and they are encouraged to create and explore. So, for instance, they’ve been singing in public spaces and building huge public installations – such as a Remembrance Day war memorial.”

What is life like after the cameras have gone home?

Emma Hillman: “Apart from the holes in my wall, things have been going well. The kids hold their heads up high, there’s a tangible pride in the school and there’s also noticeable pride and interest in the local community. To illustrate this, my daughter goes to a local primary school and lots of parents keep approaching me to say that, before the programme, they wouldn’t have considered sending their child to Frederick Bremer. However, now, because of the vivid illustration of the school’s personalised approach in Educating the East End, they are very keen.

“Essentially, the school is in a really positive place. The students are really proud and we’ve held on to all of the students who featured in the programme – with the exception, of course, of those who were in their final year. It’s put the community on the map, it’s shown that the real strength of the school is in its diversity. Our kids aren’t racist; they aren’t homophobic; they’re used to living in a diverse community and being taught in a diverse school. I not only hope that that continues, but I hope that other people – from outside London – who have watched the series have realised that diversity is a real strength.

“The articles have been positive; we’ve had good feedback; and local people have been very positive. The only minor negatives are that I miss having the creative TV people around and I don’t know what to do with myself on a Thursday broadcast night anymore! I used to have a little routine of going round to someone’s house to watch it. So, now, it’s about getting our best results ever and showing everyone that, yes, we are a person-centred school and, yes, we’ve got some fabulous children. But we’re also academically rigorous as well and we need to get our pupils the results that they need and deserve.”

The stars of Educating the East End

Emma Hillman (deputy head teacher (front right)) stands next to Jenny Smith (head teacher (front left)).
About Emma Hillman

Emma has extensive experience of teaching and SEN. With a degree in psychology and a PGCE in French, she started off her teaching career in a special school teaching French and humanities. Following this, three years as an SEN teacher and literacy coordinator in a secondary school led to a postgraduate degree and an educational psychologist post in Croydon. In the past decade, her ascent into senior management has seen her work as an assistant head/SENCO and as a deputy head. She joined Frederick Bremer as deputy head in 2010.

About Francesca Richards

Francesca joined Frederick Bremer as an assistant SENCO in 2012 and was promoted to SENCO in September of this year. Previous to this, her first post was as an A Level and GCSE English teacher at Matthew Arnold School in Oxford. Francesca has an MA in English Literature and a PGCE in Secondary English from the University of Oxford. She also holds a first-class undergraduate degree in English from the University of Warwick.

If you have any questions, or there is anything that you would like us to feature in future issues, please do get in touch.

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