Learning from an AP referral panel

People might wonder why trauma informed practice is such a passion for me, and why I can’t help but react when it’s dismissed as somehow anti-discipline or dangerous by those who are too entrenched in their behaviourist positions to even find out about it. (I refer here to England’s expert advisor on behaviour & his tribe, given away by their hot takes.)

I could cite lived experience. Like many, I have made poor, impulsive decisions rooted in traumatic stress at times in my life, but they haven’t been life-defining. Compassionate leave (which pupils don’t get), & a chance to decompress & process with loving family & friends got me through.

But it’s not that direct experience of what we need as humans to avoid long term traumatisation which drew me to the field. It was rather the introduction of an Alternative Provision referral panel in my last post as Head of Inclusion in Lincolnshire which focused my mind.

Anyone who sat on that panel will tell you that the reading was grim, jolting. Loss, relational rupture, chronic hardship, parental ill health, domestic violence – these were the chronologies. Middle class children living in secure and comfortable homes were not coming to panel and these are not the pupils who make up the ranks of England’s vast & growing AP sector.

Our behaviour expert regularly mocks the notion of ‘unmet needs’ (only virtue signallers who have not taught in tough schools are sidetracked by these). But visit any AP and you will see how devastating their impact and how urgent the need to fill social and emotional gaps.

One of our APs in Hull begins intervention by asking newly admitted young people to complete ‘My Story’. Staff know that there is always a story, which is not an excuse but a reason. They see the importance of inviting young people to tell it and of empathic listening. Minimising the destructive shame that comes with feeling mad or bad is where the work begins. Many APs do incredible work of this sort, opening young people back up to the possibility of learning in the process.

It’s not easy to regulate so much distress in one place, and I am humbled every day by the emotional labour involved. However, APs, for all of their daily magic, remain segregated settings and a level of stigma is unavoidable. Neither should the pain of ostracism ever be under-estimated. Futher, from the perspective of public purse, the use of AP to contain distress is unsustainable, because distress is spreading and for as long as economic hardship continues to bite, that will remain the case.

APs across the country are full, new ones are opening, but they will fill too…. Unless, unless, policy makers commit to reform underpinned by trauma-informed principles of the kind we are seeing in all three devolved nations.

With behaviourist ideology (do this, get that) deeply embedded here, change will meet with strident resistance and dire warnings of just the kind we heard when England very belatedly banned corporal punishment. However, it is coming.

Nurture rooms, safe spaces to decompress and be heard, these are opening up (though the short supply of support staff is a problem that must be addressed). School leaders are personalising the curriculum when demand is greater than the individual’s capacity to meet it, and before positive stress becomes negative becomes toxic. Stress management is replacing behaviour management in a growing number of settings.

My hope lies in these grass roots and with the growing consensus, which is that we have reached a tipping point. A different demographic – heightened complexity and need from the Early Years and upwards – demands a different way.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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