All educational providers have struggled due to Covid-19, but Special Educational Needs schools like Castle Hill School in Huddersfield were hit particularly hard. Most of their students have complex needs linked to physical or health difficulties as well as sensory impairments, and many have autism.
During a pandemic, you would expect optional extras to go out the window in favour of a school’s core curriculum. But SMSC values were at the heart of Castle Hill’s response to coronavirus, and helped them earn a Gold standard Quality Mark. SMSC Lead Michael Isherwood recalls how.
In July 2019 we had the opportunity to share our rich and unique school community with a member of the SMSC award verification team. Although nervous, we were excited to invite John Reece to experience a little slice of our special extended family, here at Castle Hill School, Huddersfield.
I remember it being a very hot and bright summers day. We were in the closing weeks of term and, like all schools, it had been an eventful year with ample challenges and rewards. On reflection, we needn’t have worried. After all, this was a chance to welcome others into our rich community, to demonstrate our strengths and to promote the areas we felt could be further enhanced.
As always, our champions in this cause would prove to be our amazing students, supported by the passion and dedication of an extensive roster of staff and therapists, whose skills and experience are as unique as the young lives they enrich. We then celebrated a Silver standard SMSC Quality Mark and well-earned rest for all was to follow.
Later, as the summer break faded into the distance, we readied ourselves for the challenges of a new school year and relied as always on our ever-growing community to support each other in this task. The initial SMSC self-assessment process had inspired us to focus extensively on establishing and strengthening links with all our partners in the local and wider area. As a result we had a very strong and vibrant tapestry of faith, school, college, and community organisations involved in a very lively programme of events both in and out of school. We held a festival to celebrate this and invited all our extended family together. What we didn’t know then was how much we would come to rely on our community in the darker times ahead.
We set about looking for ways to increase the presence and focus of the school council and to expand their role. We undertook training and developed strategies for embedding statutory expectations for the new Relationships, Sex and Health curriculum and identified actions to demonstrate our commitment to the forthcoming OFSTED expectations on ‘Intent.’ All of this was done through the focussed lens of the SMSC Gold standard we were setting our sights on.
Throughout the Autumn term of 2019/20 we drew up action plans, plotted milestones and continued to develop the school’s progress towards the prize. New class links were coordinated with local schools and colleges, community groups and care providers for the elderly. A lively programme of events and training was on the horizon for the coming school year.
However, by the start of the Spring term things were starting to feel a little unsettled. Families were starting to present a sense of growing anxiety. The topic of conversation was beginning to become dominated by events across the world and reassurances were given with a slight feeling of hesitation. Some of our most medically vulnerable families and staff were being advised to shield. Some families were pre-empting this and were electing to shield whilst others were growing increasingly anxious about losing some access to school and the critical role it plays on their family’s wellbeing. The national lockdown was declared and schools all over the country started to respond by closing.
Our families were experiencing a catastrophic fracture in their routine. Their ability to access the world was greatly diminished, essential support services were put on hold and already marginalised families were facing isolation and crisis. Many of our students have significant challenges to their cognitive and intellectual understanding of the world around them. This loss of predictability and security was having a devastating impact on wellbeing. With the wider school community in stasis, it was time to focus efforts on reaching out to support and tackle the isolation.
There was now a seismic shift in focus. Risk assessments and contingency plans, mobile phones, zoom and teams and very long days speaking with anxious families and colleagues, often in your slippers, became the norm. This is probably the point where aspirations for things like Quality Marks and accreditations could lose their value.
But SMSC has an extraordinary functional value. It could be wielded to support our families in these critical times, reaching out across social and cultural boundaries, affecting those from every spiritual background and shining a light on our moral values to challenge isolation, adversity and division.
SMSC in action
The school was re-opened for those most vulnerable students and there was an overwhelming response to facilitate this. Our extensive outreach programme was expanded and remains in place today, supporting families and enabling learning. Widespread daily communication with families meant that issues could be raised and brought to the attention of other agencies. During the pandemic home learning opportunities were enhanced and further developed. During this time we were also able to deliver a virtual community festival to bring our community back together again. This was SMSC in action.
Our journey to attain the Silver standard Quality Mark had started off as a way to celebrate our commitment to the values of SMSC that were already evident in our community. In doing so we cemented these values and promoted them widely, growing and celebrating our community.
The experience became the blueprint for our application for the Gold Standard Quality Mark. In April 2021 we invited John Reece back to school to once again share in our collective community experience (socially distanced and wearing PPE of course!) and shortly afterwards we were proud to hear we had been successful in our combined efforts to attain the award.