In three settings, there were children with significant learning difficulties. As one was a Pupil Referral Unit, these difficulties had previously led to emotional outbursts, which resulted in permanent exclusion. However, at the two other settings, I also met such children, who had been subject to “managed moves”, at the request of a colleague school, to avoid a permanent exclusion. It did feel a bit like shifting sands, the upshot of which was disaffected children in a school setting.
However, the significant feature of all three settings was the commitment to making things work better. All were language rich environments, children encouraged to share their thinking, appropriately, with adults prepared to listen and take part in discussion. Children were enabled to find and develop a voice. The evidence from the schools and the parents of these children, was that they had been given an opportunity, which had been taken and was being valued.
For one child with Autism in a Primary school, his voice was found via the medium of song. A very astute music teacher had noticed that, despite being almost mute in class settings, the child would take part in class singing and had a very pleasant singing voice. When I arrived, the process had taken the six months since the start of the year, but an invitation to attend the lunchtime small group had been taken up. As I was timetabled to visit the rehearsal, I was able to witness a previously silent, introverted child singing with great feeling, word perfect and with an awareness of presentation skills, which certainly was at odds with previous descriptions.
In the same school, small groups of children, all with autism, were working with a supportive TA, and a box of rocks, to discuss similarities and differences. The conversation, at a high level, was supportive of their growing knowledge within the subject, but also increasing their confidence to be articulate.
At the PRU, the students whom I met during the visit were, without exception, courteous, confident and articulate. They were allowed to speak freely and did so openly and honestly. They were a credit to the setting.
Ofsted’s recent view was that “Students are admitted to the centre because of their social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and/or medical needs. On entry, their behaviour is often challenging, affecting their learning. Records show that they quickly settle and begin to achieve well because of good quality support and guidance and the emphasis on the centre being a place in which to learn.”
I was able to spend quality time talking with the students, who showed that they had ambition, had begun to develop a range of life skills, had spent time in work settings and had significant hopes of exam success, with the majority due to leave in July having secured college places to continue their studies.
In all these cases, the common factor was that the setting had enabled and actively encouraged each and every child to be confident in their own voice, that they had something of worth to say and that this would be listened to.
The interesting factor too, was that throughout every one of the settings, very high quality work was on display. Children were being enabled to succeed through having found their voice, spoken, written and though a wide range of media.
If we don’t encourage children to have a voice, how do we have a chance of knowing what they are thinking? They need something of worth to talk about, to think about and maybe write about.