2 Planning a wellbeing intervention
4 What works already
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