Potterspury Lodge School prinicipal Jenny Nimmo explains how she adapted to the 'new normal', whilst mitigating the anxiety of her pupils
It’s a Friday in October; a crisp, autumnal day in Northamptonshire. Today there are only three children not in school, with two self-isolating as part of Covid-19 measures, and one student poorly.
At break time I go on duty outside and observe my staff interacting with the students in a myriad of different ways. A group of staff and students are playing catch with a tennis ball. One student takes a new member of staff for a walk around the site, while others chat over biscuits and hot chocolate while watching the world go by through the window. A small group in the gym kick a ball to each other from a safe distance.
This might sound unremarkable, but Potterspury Lodge School is an independent state school for day and residential students aged 8 to 19 who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and complex needs. Navigating our way through the Covid-19 pandemic has been anything but every day.
This academic year has seen ten new staff appointments, and a quarter of our pupils are new. Watching my students and staff foster positive relationships with each other, despite the backdrop of Covid and their own anxieties, made me reflect as a leader on the journey we have been on from March. It also focussed my attention on how, as we approach National Stress Awareness Day, our school community has worked as one to reduce the anxiety of our young people.
"The way a room is arranged can be the difference between entering the room or not. Creating a sensory profile that our pupils feel comfortable with puts them at ease, makes them feel safe, and helps them get ready to learn."
Introducing change to my students can be really challenging. Because of their needs, some of them require weeks of notice and preparation for even the slightest change. For example, if a staff member is on training day, we have to give the children up to two weeks’ notice. They need to have that processing time, and that can be the difference between them coming to school, and staying at home.
Due to our students’ difficulties with change and high anxiety, I made the decision to ensure that we prioritised wellbeing and engaged the onsite clinical team, made up of a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, mental health nurse, and clinical psychologist, to offer a virtual as well as onsite clinical offer for students and families. This includes confidence-building exercises, counselling, and speech and language therapy.
The clinical team were also able to create ‘sensory spaces’ in the pupils’ family home to support the therapeutic offer on site. Creating a sensory space means thinking about your environment in terms of how you can include an individual, as some of our children respond differently to different textures, noise, smells, and spaces. For example, some children like to sit with rough textile cushions, some prefer a smooth cushion; some students like to wear a hood up around their head and for some the way a room is arranged can be the difference between entering the room or not. Creating a sensory profile that our pupils feel comfortable with puts them at ease, makes them feel safe, and helps them get ready to learn.
Due to all our students having education, health and care (EHC) plans and complex needs, every one of our young people is classified as “vulnerable”. When lockdown was announced, we stayed open and have been open ever since. This means our staff had to go above and beyond – making personal sacrifices, finding child care and changing their hours - because our children need that level of interaction. Therefore, we decided to make staff wellbeing a top priority, with our clinical offer extended to staff. Individuals were able to access a drop-in each day to talk about individual concerns about the virus and lockdown.
With some staff shielding and others with family commitments due to schools closing, I made the decision for staff to work remotely, in a week-on and week-off arrangement across the school from March to July. This included my senior leaders and site staff to meet their family and wellbeing commitments. I was the only constant member of staff on site for the duration of lockdown for consistency.
I also had to factor in that I needed staff on-site for the residential children. For these children, this school is their home. I scheduled residential staff being on-site 24/7 to ensure our young people were being looked after.
We provide on-site catering for all of our pupils and staff and we knew continuity here would be important for many families. We visited students at home to deliver their free school meals from a safe distance. We also delivered free school meals to students whose parents had suffered hardship through the pandemic.
One-by-one, our day students returned, keen to have routine and familiarity. For the work undertaken throughout during the pandemic in keeping our students safe, Potterspury Lodge School was awarded The Safeguarding Initiative Award during Covid-19 by the Safeguarding Alliance. We were also awarded the Teach Well Gold Award from the Teaching Alliance for our work to prioritise staff wellbeing through the pandemic.
Looking around our grounds today, I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved. There is no guidebook on how to run a school in pandemic, but we achieved consistency for our children and found a delicate balance between staff wellbeing and children’s needs, laying a strong foundation for the ‘new normal’ going forward.