Wellbeing in Alternative Provision 

1 Introduction

2 Planning a wellbeing intervention

3 Grenfell

4 What works already

5 Research

6 Conclusion

1. Having spent a very pleasant day in Cambridge discussing, in depth, what we mean by wellbeing and how best to address it I became aware at about 3pm just how relaxed I suddenly was. This is because the school day for our pupils had just ended and I had received no messages to say that a situation had arisen which needed to be discussed and a decision made. I have every faith in my experienced staff and SLT, but as head of a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in London such is the range of very complex and challenging learners and it is often the case that decisions have to be made about which parent or carer I will need to see the following day to discuss aspects of behaviour, attendance or progress. The issue of my own wellbeing as a leader in alternative provision (AP) came sharply into focus.

2. Wellbeing is high on the agenda within each school within the MAT. I met with our wellbeing coordinator to discuss an intervention we could implement. My original plan was to audit across the MAT to discuss what was most effective in each school and to create a menu of interventions to be shared across the MAT. We met and my plan was for her to call wellbeing coordinators in other schools within the MAT to ascertain from them their views on what measures are:

• effective but costly

• effective but inexpensive

• ineffective and costly

• ineffective and expensive

This remains part of a wider exercise.

3. Then the tragedy of Grenfell Tower intruded on the lives of pupils and staff at my school. I was called to school at 5am on the 14th June to be confronted with a situation, the effects of which will remain with me forever. The gruesome details of this event are being well documented. From my perspective, on that morning, decisions had to be made. The block is less than 250 metres from my school. It was still ablaze when I got to work in the twilight and my first thoughts were which of our children lived there; we had always had pupils living there. My next thoughts were should I tell staff and pupils to stay away as there was an evident risk the building might collapse. I was joined by my CEO who had arrived directly from a long distance flight and my EO to support me in this extraordinary situation. The following few days were to sharpen my focus on the concept of wellbeing, both of pupils and staff.

All of our pupils were accounted for. The father of an ex-pupil is the one person we have had confirmed as being lost to the fire. We contacted all families to tell them that the school was open for support and that as many teachers who could make it in would provide that space to allow them to talk. Every staff member made it in spite of the complete shutdown of transport links in the area. We had extra therapists drafted in from other schools. Our wider response to the event was to provide the ground floor of the school as a possible emergency shelter with up to 80 beds. We became part of the huge effort to take in donations, having to turn away people from all over the country after we could no longer manage. We went home after midnight when it was clear that we were not needed and the exercise repeated itself the following evening. Eventually, once we realised that the situation was in hand we were left with the issue of boxing up and arranging for the donations to be moved. All of my small staff team were involved in this. It was a mammoth task.

The wall of boxed donations sorted by PRU staff

Those pupils who did arrive into school were provided with high quality support. Many knew people missing. One girl I spoke to who was particularly angry and upset told me when I asked her if she knew anybody, “Tony, I used to live there. We had to move out of there because of a fire, so of course I know people.”

One week after the fire we decided to break down the timetable to allow our pupils to try to deal with this event. We arranged for workshops to take place during the day including: letter-writing, lyric-writing, poster-making, art, and planning for Green for Grenfell day. We wanted our learners to begin to process what had happened in their neighbourhood. They were not interested. After the first two periods we reverted to normal timetable and they engaged fully in their learning. I could not understand why they were not angry, but they weren’t. They wanted normality. Then I realised that it was the adults who were angry and I discussed this with our lead therapist.

This, if it can be presented as such, became my planned intervention. We met as a staff, led by two of our therapists to try to make sense of what had happened. It was a painful exercise as people together tried to express how they felt, particularly painful for those staff members who lived close by. We realised just how much we are part of this community and just how angry we were. I believe it helped to some extent and certainly needed to happen.  Staff comments following the session were positive.  Our efforts to engage with the learners about the tragedy in the way that we did was more about us trying to work through our own frustrations and anger. There followed the long task of boxing and shifting the huge amount of donations of all sorts. This engaged every member of staff. As for the pupils we will continue to monitor and respond as and when they feel the need for support.

4. The tragedy prompted a conversation with our wellbeing coordinator about what is effective in the context of the work we do at the PRU with such challenging and complex learners. We have in place such measures as: First Friday event where we enjoy a small celebration of a glass of wine and snacks on the first Friday of the month; wellbeing day where staff from across the MAT come together to engage in a range of relaxing activities; birthdays are remembered and celebrated as are other anniversaries or important occasions. These are all important but are only successful if the ethos of the organisation as a whole is one of mutual support and cooperation, where staff feel supported and able to openly discuss areas where they feel they may not be coping.

5. My point about raising the issue of Grenfell was as much to do with pupil wellbeing as that of staff. My school is a PRU and our pupils bring complexity and challenge to schoolwith them every day. Tina Rae, citing Roffey (2012) argues that, “pupil well-being and staff well-being should be considered as two sides of the same coin.” (2017 p3). She makes a strong case for a high level of emotional support, citing Rae arguing, “Teachers can be left feeling aggressive, demoralised and with a real sense of low morale, particularly when faced with a group of extremely challenging students” (2011 p.8). It occurred to me that rather than trying to implement a short term intervention for the sake of it, I should explore what works for my staff among the measures we already take to manage wellbeing. One of these is our regular case discussion, hosted by our clinical psychologist, seconded to us for one day per week from CAMHS. Although the focus is on an individual pupil at any one time, the high-level conversation and reflection on the usually troubling background, followed by a discussion on strategies to help address the challenges posed by the pupil in question resonates strongly with the Staff Support Group model proposed by a range of experts, Hanko, Creese et al, Farouk. Our model allows staff to reflect on the wider issues which may affect the behaviour of a pupil, but it also allows for an open conversation among all staff which provides a platform for mutually supportive approaches to managing particular pupils and particular behaviours, and as a result staff are better able to manage their own emotions. This then, I suggest, is our most effective tool to manage staff wellbeing.

6. I look forward to Day 2 of the course on wellbeing with Tim and Dennis. I feel this process has been cathartic in looking at what wellbeing really is; is it really about gestures? I think it is to some extent. People like to be acknowledged and at the centre of attention, if only fleetingly. I believe it is more about creating a climate where discussions of how we feel as human beings are essential, not so that we can avoid our responsibilities as professionals doing a tough job, but so that we can share the burden of managing these complex, challenging pupils in a calm, mutually supportive way, where stress is acknowledged but kept to a minimum. And both staff wellbeing and pupil wellbeing are addressed at the same time.


Tina Rae, Naina Cowell & Louise Field (2017): Supporting teachers’ well-being in the context of schools with emotional and behavioural difficulties, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, DOI: 10.1080/13632752.2017.1331969


Then I met Poppy

Returning home from the TBAP conference at Goldsmith’s on Friday feeling refreshed and looking forward – yes really – to getting back to the real job, I was jolted into reality on the train. I was reflecting on the quality of the experience of the two days and considering just how good all of the speakers were and, well just feeling validated.  
Sitting across from me on the train was a couple with a very young baby. The dad was about 19 and the mum about 18. Dad had no top on and was very agitated. He was clearly uncomfortable in the train in the company of the general public and spent a lot of time talking to nobody in particular about himself and darting glances around him. He announced that he had taken cannabis, “for medicinal purposes only, you see?” Nobody was taking any notice of him. I noticed he had a joint rolled up and tucked behind his ear. His girlfriend looked tired, worn out, and was keen to keep him happy. She did not appear unhappy with the dad and seemed in tune with her. Dad then took the baby, Poppy, I was to learn later, from the pram and very self consciously began to feed him. Mum was pleased with this and encouraged him. Dad looked around to see what people were thinking now. He caught my eye and I smiled approvingly. He seemed pleased to have been acknowledged. After a while he put the baby gently back into the pram.
A couple of stops later three teenage boys got on, in school uniform. They were not loud but instantly the mood in the carriage changed. Dad became even more agitated. The boys were of three different ethnicities and were chatting away amiably about three seats from where this young family was sitting. Dad began muttering to himself but in the direction of the group to shut the fuck up, that the baby was sleeping. I don’t know if at any time the boys were aware of the dad, but I was relieved when they moved to seats which had become available further down the carriage. This however only made the situation worse because dad assumed they were talking about him and laughing at him. Muttering away he threatened to smack them up and would happily take on the three of them. Mum, again quietly, backed him up on this. Dad then threw out that they’re only kids and he didn’t fight kids. Then one of the boys laughed out loud and he reverted to his muttered threats. He got up and moved down the carriage towards them but stopped and began to do pull-ups on the hand rails. As we approached what was the last stop he began to plot how he would get them. As the train pulled in to Clapham Junction, the last stop, he was still staring in the direction of the boys. I got up and got along side him and his girlfriend. What would I do if it all kicked off? I don’t know. What I did do was what I do every day in the job. I spoke to them. I asked about the baby, how old she was – 6 weeks, name – Poppy, does she sleep at night – no. The mood changed. They were happy to talk about their precious, tiny child in the pram. Dad beamed as he knew he had demonstrated earlier on the journey what a good dad he could be when he fed his child. I told them about my newest grandson. The three boys were forgotten. There would be no confrontation.

I reflected on the rest of my journey home about what else I could have said to this young couple. So much, of course. I wanted to give them so much advice about learning and sticking with it, that he would have to give up cannabis if he really was concerned for his daughter’s future. I sensed in the couple the fear of just not belonging to a wider world. I sensed violence, aggression, substance misuse, damaged mental health and a very tenuous existence. I know however that I did as much as I could in the circumstances. Jaz Ampawfarr spoke on Friday about the serial interrupters who saved her. We do this all the time at TBAP. And it becomes part of us. There was no more I could have done, but I reflected that maybe interrupting this fragile young family’s life even for those couple of minutes might just make a tiny difference. 

Praise be…. The power of language: Why it is crucial we are careful how we bestow praise.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

1. You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it.

2. Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.

If you agree, well, you are someone with a fixed mindset and have a deterministic view on life, that is you just roll along and hope all turns out well for you and those who depend on you; you are probably vain, weak-minded, possibly prone to jealousy and you are happy to bimble along doing what you’re good at, even if there is little or no development potential, because it is safe.  Fixed mindset people play it very safe.  I’ll get to growth mindsets later.  The above are the first two questions of Carol Dweck’s questionnaire to determine what sort of mindset you have.  I cannot believe there is anyone out there in the education world who has not come across her work.  Currently her book Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential stands at 297 in Amazon bestseller list, not bad for an academic work.  I was introduced to Professor Dweck’s research through her first book, Self Theories, and found it very compelling, not least because of the amount of research she has carried out to back her theory.  Generally close to 50% of people have either a fixed or growth mindset, with a small percentage in between who fall into neither category.  Growth mindset people tend to be able to take control over their lives and view challenges, obstacles and criticism as opportunities to grow.  They develop strategies to overcome challenges, are not afraid to put in extra effort, and are better prepared to deal with the vagaries of life in general.  I don’t want to dwell too long on the impact on people’s lives of having one or the other mindset, other than to say if you have a fixed mindset you won’t be reading this piece.

Now, in drawing our attention to this Professor Dweck was kind enough to provide us with strategies to help people change from fixed to growth mindsets.  And just like her research into mindsets, the remedy is deceptively straightforward.  Praise is the problem.  In a nutshell she divides praise into two types: person praise and process praise, the former bad and often encouraging a fixed mindset in a person, the latter good. Why?  Well, when you praise a child for “being” something, smart, talented, an angel, the best etc, it is pretty definitive.  The status attached to that praise becomes all important.  The status has to be protected.  The problem is that this brings in a whole set of problems.  Now, I work in a Pupil Referral Unit in the UK and most of our learners have fixed mindsets.  I know because I get them all to complete the questionnaire on arrival.  Here’s an example: I was called to help persuade Jade (not her real name) back into her maths class.  I found her lying on the floor in the corridor.  After a fruitless five minute conversation, in which she proved to be spectacularly unresponsive, she turned to me and said, in quite sinister fashion, “I am the most intelligent person in this whole school”.  This was a reference to the fact that she had achieved level 5s in English, maths and science in primary school.  “So”, I ventured, “why are you out of your maths lesson?”  “Because I did algebra in primary school, I don’t need to do it any more.”  In fact she had opted out because she was finding the harder work in year 8 tougher than expected, but could not deal with the challenge.  This was someone who could thrive only if the work was within her grasp, but also, importantly, she had to be better at it than anyone else in the class.  If she could not be the best, there was no point in trying, better to pretend that it didn’t matter and opt out.

Parents’ evenings provide a rich seam of fixed mindset praise.  Mr or Mrs X or both will bring their child, Y, along and present themselves with looks of anxiety.  The anxiety is for different reasons on the surface but stems from the same approach to praise.  I am reading the situation and I have to try to tell them that young Y is really not doing much in lesson, making no effort – and not because I do not do my utmost to differentiate, believe me, I do.  Y desperately wants me to say something nice but when I tentatively suggest that he could be doing more, Mr and Mrs X beg to differ.  They find no reason to believe he should be attaining anything but the highest grade – note how they home in on the grades – and then here it comes, “He’s an intelligent boy, we’ve always known that and we’ve always told him that.”  Now, at this point trying to tell them that effort and hard work, no matter how much innate intelligence they have, are essential ingredients for success just doesn’t wash.  I watch in admiration as other, wiser colleagues get the script out and have an easier time than I do.

The problem with process praise is that it is harder, one has to be more mindful of what one is saying and provide specifics about what one is praising.  Compare these two statements:

“I’m very proud of you for not giving up on that task, now look at what you have learned from sticking at it”

“You are so talented at this, well done”

Well, obviously the first one is a growth mindset praise statement.  It refers to the effort, and possibly strategies used to learn, and it is backed by a statement that allows the learner to take pride and encouragement from the outcome.  The process – strategy, effort, thinking – is praised, so the stakes are low in comparison to the second, fixed mindset statement where the person’s innate ability is praised.  If they get the task wrong it is a statement about the child herself, and too many tasks wrong can only discourage anyone from taking risks with their learning.  Growth praise requires effortful thinking on the educator / parent part.  There are times when a simple “well done” is appropriate as long as it is in the context of an ongoing growth mindset dialogue over time.  In effect growth praise is simply good Assessment for Learning feedback.

Dweck herself is scathing about the self-esteem movement of the 90s when it was believed to be best practice for a parent to praise their little darlings for “being” talented, gifted, best at (fill in as appropriate – football, ballet, shoelace-tying etc).  And I was one of them.  I amaze myself thinking of how watching one of my sons play football, I only saw him touching, passing, receiving the ball.  “You were brilliant today, Dom (his real name)”.  He also knew when I thought he hadn’t played so well because although I’d say nice things, he was expecting the whole person praise and was let down when I didn’t say it.  How do I know, because he told me this year.  He’s at University now doing really well.

Ok, so now we know.