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Laying foundations for academic excellence

November 23, 2021, 16:43 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • West Lea School’s Paul Quinn shares the strategic framework behind its success
Laying foundations for academic excellence

West Lea School is an inclusive environment where every child is welcome. Supporting pupils aged four to 19 with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), we equip young people with a ‘suitcase’ of skills to help them progress to further education and into the world of work. 

Our values bind our school community together: innovation, inclusion, community, kindness and learning for life. They’re evident in everything we do; they drive us to break down barriers that exist for our pupils, and help us live up to our vision of a world where everyone can flourish.

Our recently established strategic framework provides us with the foundations on which we can achieve this by becoming a centre of excellence for students with SEND, uniting and supporting staff in the best way possible, being a hub for pupils to develop skills for life, and developing relationships within the community to provide life-changing opportunities.

An ‘extra’ ordinary school

Our first pillar is focused on our vision of being an ‘extra’ ordinary school and a centre of excellence for students with a diverse range of SEND. We continuously develop our offer to provide better outcomes for our students and support mainstream schools with outreach services.

Recognising that each pupil has specific requirements, we place great importance on understanding individual learning styles, motivations and goals, and providing personalised opportunities to help students apply their learning in a real-world context.

Our four campuses are structured in a way that facilitates inclusive and rewarding activities that build knowledge, skills and confidence. For our young pupils this involves basic skills which develop communication and independence, for example, learning how to use money in a shop, dress or make a snack.

It’s vital to build these foundations, so that pupils can interpret different environments, learn to make choices for themselves and grow in confidence.

To help achieve this, we provide students with ‘passports’. Within these are five key areas, based on research and evidence-based practice, that our young people need to thrive as adults. These include factors such as community engagement, self-care and daily living, managing medication, travel and work skills, as well as social and communication skills.

We use these passports both inside and outside of the classroom. As pupils gain these skills and tick off elements within each area, they receive stamps and certificates, which helps to solidify their learning and celebrate their achievements. 

Additionally, providing peer support groups helps our pupils develop friendships and interests – a key aspect of their development. This is vital in helping them to not only feel confident and respected by pupils and staff, but also value and appreciate other people’s opinions and achievements. 

A great place to work

Our second pillar is focused on making our school a great place to work – with staff uniting in our purpose, living our values, becoming champions of wellbeing, and developing personally and professionally. 

To achieve this, we’ve invested heavily in staff, ensuring we have the right mix of roles and that everyone is motivated, focused and equipped to deliver excellent teaching and learning, therapeutic services and pastoral care for pupils with a wide range of needs.

Our leadership ethos is ‘To flourish and be of service to others’, which includes prioritising the development and wellbeing of our staff. We have a high-challenge, high-support culture, which means we set stretching goals, have high standards and provide staff with excellent support. 

West Lea people are committed to their personal development and are empowered to continuously innovate and improve so they can break down barriers for themselves, their colleagues and our children.

Our commitment to wellbeing has been reinforced through the appointment of a head of therapeutic support, who drives a long-term strategy and pathway for support across the school.

We’re currently prioritising the development of our leaders and we’re revising our approach to performance management to create a ‘partnering for performance’ model where performance conversations are ongoing and supportive, providing timely feedback and recognition. 

A great place to learn

Learning for life permeates everything at West Lea; it’s deep-rooted in our values and across our teaching. It’s no surprise that our third pillar focuses us on being a great place to learn.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on every aspect of disabled people’s lives and so we understand, now more than ever, the importance of setting our pupils up for success through lifelong learning. 

We provide pupils with a rich academic curriculum, which includes traditional subjects as well as communication skills and real-world experiences. As they transition through the school, students learn how to travel independently, maintain good mental and physical health, stay safe online, and acquire basic road safety skills, as well as how to navigate the world of work and build relationships in the community. 

When pupils reach our KS4 and post-16 campuses, they are ready to embrace work experience, supported internships and placements. Our curriculum includes taster days at college, as well as support to help pupils scope out their future pathways.

This is done in a clear and direct way so that they know what it means to take their place in society and make an active and meaningful contribution; knowing that they are valued for ‘who they are’ not just what they can do.

Life-changing communities

Our fourth pillar reflects our vision of the life-changing power of community. Every young person at our school has something to offer beyond our walls. Through our non-profit foundation, the Enterprise Cooperative Trust, we build community relationships with like-minded groups, schools, businesses and charities who can provide our pupils with innovative ways to develop their interests and skills.

From our local coffee cart, charity shops and eBay store, to work placements with retailers like Nandos and Sainsbury’s, we give our pupils the best possible opportunities and exposure to a real-life working environment.

Local partnerships not only help provide our pupils with these experiences but also challenge the status quo and encourage more organisations to support and champion our efforts. 

I’m lucky to lead an ‘extra’ ordinary school that strives to build aspirations and gives opportunities to pupils they wouldn’t otherwise have had. This starts from creating a robust and cohesive strategy that staff, parents, pupils and the wider community can buy into. Only then can we truly break down barriers and help young people with SEND to build their confidence and achieve their potential.

6 steps to improvement

  • Continuously assess and develop your offer to provide the best outcomes for pupils.
  • Understand individual’s learning styles, motivations and goals so that you can provide personalised learning and the opportunities which allow them to apply learning in a real-world context.
  • Help staff be united in purpose, by investing in professional and personal development as well as areas such as pastoral care.
  • Strive to create a ‘high-challenge, high-support’ culture to ensure staff deliver the very best support for pupils.
  • Provide a rich academic curriculum, including traditional subjects as well as communication skills and real-world experiences.
  • Form partnerships with the local community to provide pupils with innovative ways to develop interests and skills.

Paul Quinn is CEO at West Lea School.