Most Local Authorities have Fair Access panels or similar collaborative arrangements through which troubled and troubling pupils are afforded the opportunity of a ‘fresh start’ when things are going badly in their current school. Some may be referred to the LA’s PRU through this process whilst others will transfer to neighbouring schools. Parents and pupil will have consented prior to the panel meeting since a managed move cannot legally be imposed.
Through such collaboration, the damaging experience of a permanent exclusion can be avoided and, for this reason, we are promoting the practice in Lincolnshire. However, in Lincolnshire, as elsewhere, we need to be acutely aware of the risks and I’m posting this as a way of thinking these through whilst also sharing some expert advice, from the excellent Louise Bomber, on how to support transition. She reminds us that change is highly anxiety-provoking for our most vulnerable pupils. We really need to know what we’re doing when we move them between settings.
Any new situation involves the loss of the old, known one. Memories are particularly likely to be reawakened by sudden or extreme changes. The more unstructured and strange a new situation, the further we are removed from what is familiar physically, mentally or emotionally, the more disoriented and terrified we tend to feel. (Wittenberg, 1997)
Clearly, transition can be difficult for anyone at any age since change involves loss and the need to confront uncertainty. Even children with ‘good enough’ backgrounds will experience anxiety at the prospect. For those who have experienced relational trauma, the loss inherent in transition can trigger very powerful feelings. Without careful support, those with autistic difficulties will also struggle with transition, though for different underlying reasons. It’s helpful to note that Bomber’s strategies, all aimed at significantly reducing anxiety, will support both groups and indeed any vulnerable pupil who is facing the challenge of moving on.
Exposure to too much stress or a particular individual’s intolerance to such stress may either lead him to be totally unable to cope with the new situation, or drive him to adopt defensive measures that do not allow him to make full use of his potential … There will always be individuals so vulnerable that any change may result in disintegration, or at least a serious setback. (Wittenberg, 1999)
Vulnerable children benefit from consistency. However, for all kinds of valid reasons, it is not always possible to provide this. The strategies below constitute an investment in wellbeing and available resources within both settings should be deployed to enhance this, so that transition is successful and vulnerable children are not caught up in damaging rounds of pass the parcel.
Lack of certainty in school will, however, have undermined their progress, leaving them less able to make relationships with teachers or to trust in their guidance. Mistrust then acts as a barrier to the enjoyment of school and educational success. (Peake, 2006 in Golding et al, 2006)
FROM THE FAMILIAR
Bomber’s advice is to say it as it is. Pupils need us to be upfront and honest. What is going to happen? Inform the pupil briefly and explicitly in a factual way, rather than adding personal thoughts or judgements. Sensitively check back understanding, remembering that vulnerable pupils may experience rejection very deeply.
Allow opportunity to reflect on what happened during the pupil’s time at this school – the successes and the failures. A memory book might be helpful.
Give as much information about the imminent change as possible, to prepare the pupil for the move. Careful preparation will reduce anxiety and help keep behaviours more regulated and appropriate. Preparations could include:
- creating a visual timeline/countdown to the move
- researching the new school and area
- transition visit(s) with a familiar adult (suggested activities in APPENDIX)
- making a book about the new school (suggested content in APPENDIX)
- preparing the new class or form for arrival. What could the teacher and pupils do to welcome and help feel included?
4. The exit interview
Time needs to be made for some important questions to be asked. Maybe we didn’t always make the wisest decisions as a school and maybe we too can learn from experiences we have shared with this pupil. For Bomber, the exit interview is essential. It will not only communicate to the pupil that their voice is valued, but it might also increase our understanding. New learning can then inform practice with future vulnerable pupils.
Done well, the process will reinforce the message that the pupil is a combination of parts and is not ‘all bad’ (using the language of parts is a key theme in Bomber’s work) We do after all have a duty of care for our pupils’ mental health, and how they leave school.
a) What did we do that helped you to settle to learn?
b) What do you now do differently, as a result of being at our school?
c) What did we do that interfered with your ability to settle and learn here?
d) What should we get better at?
e) What would you like us to understand about pupils who struggle in school?
It is only when we truly listen that we become acutely aware of the misinterpretations and mistranslation that inevitably goes on within schools, and the need for us to adapt our practice.
TO THE NEW
The time invested in the pupil’s welcome will be well spent. The class needs to be prepared and ready to welcome with a full time-table implemented over time, not all at once. The pupil will be especially vulnerable at first and will benefit from being paired up with good role models who will be aware of their role in helping the new pupil feel comfortable. At the same time, it’s also wise to be ready for the end of a ‘honeymoon period’ as difficulties usually arise when pupils feel more settled. Monitor closely and be ready to increase support sooner rather than later – as a preventive measure. If the school is able to provide solutions-focused support, now would be the time for this.
The previous school needs to continue contact with the pupil in person and/or through notes or cards. It’s important that pupils experience staggered endings – especially with their key adult. Like all of us, vulnerable pupils need to process endings and feelings of rejection and despair will quickly overwhelm if not managed through planned, staggered endings. Imagine how helpful it would be for a pupil who may be full of shame to know that someone chooses to remain in contact, despite not being paid to do so. This after-care experience could prove life-changing for some, in terms of how they view themselves.
None of this is standard practice. (Correct me if I’m wrong) However, it’s vital for those pupils whose life experience places them at risk of experiencing feelings of profound rejection. The consequences of this can be toxic – for the pupils themselves and their wider communities. Despair and isolation can lead to devastating effects, such as the numbing of pain through drug-taking, binge drinking, risk taking and other compulsive addictive behaviours. We must strive to avoid these outcomes, by doing things properly, managing transitions sensitively, creating for our pupils a sense of belonging and thereby avoiding the dangerous game of pass the parcel with our most vulnerable children.
A Memory book could include
- photos of significant people in school
- photos of significant places in school
- comments written by staff
- evidence of successes – pieces of work/photos/written entries
- a list of areas of improvement
- a list of areas still to be worked on
- names of favourite books/activities/tasks
- log of best memories
- time line (include the future on this so they can start to think about it)
Visits to new school can include
- following a map to the new school
- meeting key staff
- having lunch together
- attending a club
- interviewing a pupil at the new school
- taking photos
- looking at a school map
- going through the school diary to prepare for organising themselves