Our unique approach to education and therapeutic learning is what makes Exceptional Ideas unique. As such, each month we are aiming to provide valuable insights into the ethos and working practice of our organisation, from the directors themselves.
Two Heads Are Better Than One
Brett Runchman and Hazel Bunting run Exceptional Ideas Limited. The organisation specialises in providing education for students aged 11 – 16 years in the County of Essex. Brett (Head of Therapeutic Care/Company Director) is a Specialist practitioner RNLD, Hazel (Head of Education/Company Director) is a qualified teacher, MA and former registered nurse. In this article they explain why two heads maybe better than one.
We opened our first school, ‘Teaseldown’, in 2008. After meeting professionally, we found the philosophy underpinning our individual practice to be very similar: the application of ‘evidence-based thinking and assessment’ that we had both previously experienced in our nursing careers guided our thinking in unravelling the very confusing way that special needs education is provided in our country. This similarity of approach became highly useful when designing the operational ethos of our Schools.
To us Special Educational Needs provision appeared to be a ‘bolt-on’ accessory to the mainstream education system, much like accessories are selected for a dress; the dress doesn’t change but the accessories make it appear appropriate to the situation. This often means that the core values underpinning the style of teaching and learning can be rigid, and the expectation of success is placed on these bolt-on accessories rather than the individual capabilities of the student. An example of this is where students are given so many hours of 1:1 classroom support but the way in which the lesson is delivered remains unchanged with little or no differentiation.
We had both witnessed examples of special needs provision in practice and there appeared to be some difficulties with what was on offer.
The first is that the students’ educational difficulties appear to act as barriers to accessing education itself, and are often separated from the assessment of the students general functioning. This can result in a school that seeks to manage the difficulties, rather than seek to overcome them, or factor them into functional development. The school can then seek to avoid risk by setting low expectations for education, combined with stifling over-care that destroyed independence.
The second type appears to have high expectations in terms of educational achievement, but also utilises bolt-on therapy to manage the educational difficulties. This style of provision uses various types of counselling or talking therapies, as well as psychiatric assessment. This can be positive in ensuring person-centred support for difficulties, but more often than not results in problem-focused assessment and planning and therefore a managed, restrictive experience, rather than a solution-based experience.
We do not adhere to either of these philosophies in our schools. We believe that the students should own their difficulties and the experience of creating the solutions. We have seen that students often end up under the care of child and adolescent mental health services for the provision of counselling and/or medication when education provision has failed and, as result, mental health issues have developed.
While obviously child and adolescent mental health services have a key role to play where specific targeted work needs to be undertaken, they should not be expected to provide day-to-day support. Neither are they equipped to do so.
After seven years of development and refinement, we are seeing the development of a philosophy that works. The approach has to involve parents, community services such as child and adolescent mental health services as well as anyone else helpful to the process. All interaction should be therapeutic, transparent and person centred. The approach should also involve holistic assessment, comprehensive risk analysis and monitoring, and above all be built upon a solution-focused outlook. Educationally, the approach must fix upon measurable progress by using carefully constructed learning objectives and regular review.
Over the years, Hazel and I have learned much about each other’s professional specialism, and how to bring together evidence from academic and therapeutic assessment to inform potential solutions.
Hazel has her sights set on enabling the student to achieve their high expectations educationally, whereas I am aiming for high levels of emotional development and functioning in the student day to day lifestyle. When faced with a challenge, it is the bringing together of these two knowledge bases that often produce a real solution.
When we opened Teaseldown school in 2008, Hazel and I, along with two other staff members, worked directly with four students across the educational week. It was then that we realised that a number of variables need to be controlled, all of which contribute to the therapeutic process. We were able to collaborate in order to optimise the environment for learning, plan community and outside activities, and tailor learning objectives to the individual. We developed an understanding that it was imperative that parents are heavily involved in the educational experience, often with daily communication.
We believe that you can educate the student with a clinical knowledgebase. This knowledge then becomes the building blocks of the solution.
We believe that students should not only be aware of their difficulties, but that they should be taught to understand them from a reflective perspective. Students should then be equipped to deal with them.
Many of our students understand Bernes’ (1952) Transactional Analysis and the main points of learning theorists, such as Bruner and Skinner. They spend time looking at research around their difficulties such as sensory processing ability and motivators for behaviour. This creates solution pathways which are owned and understood by the student, and this has a real positive impact on functioning.
Students themselves should be writing to their medical professionals and not waiting for parents or teachers to do it for them. They should learn to use analytical tools that identify behavioural reinforcers and motivators. These, along with rating scales and escalation graphs, allow the student to see how change occurs and build on strategies that work for them. We are also then able to reflect upon the recorded progress evidence to identify change that has occurred.
Our ethos is the lynchpin from which our school, staff, parents and other stakeholders grow and develop. When staff are able to understand our philosophical foundations, they can grow alongside the children.
We train our staff to a very high level, using training programs pre-recorded on our cloud information system. All of the schools work from the cloud-based infrastructure that Hazel and I are able to monitor constantly. We are also currently developing the use of social network media tools, including Twitter and Facebook. These ‘new age’ therapeutic tools are fundamental in our ability to network for peer review and in raising the self-esteem of our students. The new cloud based storage system also gives us the ability to communicate across the organisation and cross reference material and evidence at the touch of a button. The result is an independent special school that has mainstream academic aims and objectives and more importantly outcomes. The result is a learning organisation that seeks to promote educational and therapeutic development for students and staff alike.
Matthew was in year 9 when came from a local moderate learning disability school. Academically, he had been assessed at his previous school, who found him to be working at national curriculum levels 1 and 2 across all subjects. He also has a diagnosis of autism and ADHD, for which he receives medication. Matthew’s statement stated that he needed a highly differentiated curriculum to enhance independent functioning.
When Matthew initially started with us his anxiety levels were extremely high. He had left a number of previous schools under negative circumstances and his self-esteem was very low. He was almost entirely dependent upon his parents to meet most of his daily needs.
We started a slow phase of transition to our school. This involved an evidence-based baseline assessment, so that we could see Matthew and his needs from concrete evidence rather than by purely accepting the previous assessments outcomes.
By four weeks in Matthew was attending full time with excellent attendance levels. Matthew’s journey was a long one, but his three-year long journey allowed us to unlock a potential that would allow him to sit some GCSE’s and Entry Level Certificates, as well as achieving Level 12 with the British Gymnastic association in trampolining. He also completed work experience placements and successful entry into college.
The journey was extremely challenging at times and many would question our beliefs and approach along the way. There were difficult periods, such as when Matthew was learning to travel independently and how to function within social conflicts. The most satisfying outcome for us was that Matthew could leave our school with an ability to cope in day-to-day life and with strategies he could use in times where things would become difficult, as well as a comprehensive curriculum vitae.
Two Heads are better than one! – We are now providing therapeutic education for twenty-five youngsters, all of whom had been permanently excluded from mainstream education in Essex. What started as an aligning of philosophical theories has developed into a working model where the combining of clinical and academic knowledge bases has resulted in real progress for young people with social communication difficulties.
While the clinical and academic progress measurement techniques we use may be complex, they are extremely important in demonstrating progress against pre-set objectives and in ensuring the journey for each student and member of staff stays a safe and successful one.
You can follow the work of Exceptional Ideas Limited on Twitter (Exceptional_I) and Facebook (Exceptional Ideas), and on their website at http://www.exceptional-ideas.co.uk