Mornings at Breakwater Academy, a one form entry primary school in Newhaven, East Sussex, feel warm and smell of fresh toast.
Some of the younger children eat theirs whilst the register is taken, others when completing their morning learning tasks. Sometimes, the older pupils choose to leave their slice until breaktime.
For a number of children, this is their breakfast, and they won’t have eaten at home.
Breakwater, part of STEP Academy Trust since 2016, serves a predominantly white British community, with above average numbers of disadvantaged pupils - year group percentages range from 25% to 67%.
This challenging context informs all aspects of provision, from the approach to pedagogy and curriculum design, to the culture of safeguarding.
Safeguarding pervades all aspects of provision at Breakwater, because it has to. The post-pandemic context is ever more challenging due to the increase in parental and pupil anxiety and mental health issues, none of which meets external agency thresholds for either support or statutory involvement.
The academy continues to have high levels of mobility amongst pupils, which makes tracking the most vulnerable families extremely challenging.
The below-average starting points that characterise the children starting reception, particularly in terms of speech and language, adds to this challenge.
Safeguarding in the post-pandemic context falls more than ever to schools as other services struggle to meet increased demand; a lack of capacity and long waiting lists means that schools such as Breakwater fulfil an ever-widening safeguarding role.
All good schools prioritise a robust culture of safeguarding that far exceeds the statutory expectations; we are no exception. The processes and procedures of managing disclosures, record-keeping and staff training are embedded.
The safeguarding team is large for a small school: the role of designated safeguarding lead rests with all senior leaders (including the executive headteacher) and a learning mentor.
This approach ensures that capacity for safeguarding is never an issue, there is always someone to discuss concerns with and to help make decisions. Importantly, at Breakwater, there are a number of complementary characteristics of provision which have had a positive impact on safeguarding.
Making sure they’re in school
The first of these is a robust, no-nonsense approach to, and prioritisation of, attendance, which has been in place since academisation. If a child is absent, this is acted upon swiftly.
One of the benefits of a small school is that all staff know all the children; the attendance officer alerts the DSL immediately at the slightest concern.
Patterns of absence are monitored by the education welfare officer, a position funded by STEP Academy Trust, who agrees a plan of support and reinforces expectations.
This frequency and persistence of contact is impactful and allows staff to spot any warning signs that might lead to wider safeguarding concerns.
Learning continues to be applied from the periods of COVID lockdowns, whereby the prioritisation of contact formed a large part of the safeguarding duty. Teachers spoke to pupils at least weekly (daily for some vulnerable families) by telephone or Zoom calls, and if contact could not be made, then doorstep visits were carried out.
Even for families thinking this an unnecessary intrusion, it was a constant reminder that the academy cared about them and was prepared to maintain that contact to ensure that their children were safe. The momentum from that relationship building and expectation has continued.
Overcoming the emotional fog
When in school, children know they are there to learn. The high expectations for their conduct and approach to learning are embedded, but for some children the complexity of their lives outside school means that they need extra support to be able to learn successfully.
Learning mentors work with a range of children, some of whom are identified because of a known safeguarding concern, but most because they are displaying signs of needing support in removing barriers to learning.
Research evidence shows that anxiety, worry about what’s happening outside school and other types of emotional ‘fog’ make cognitive overload much more likely; overcoming this is a fundamental tenet of the knowledge curriculum at Breakwater.
It is the role of all staff, particularly the learning mentors, to help to lessen and remove these barriers, which in turn fosters an open, nurturing and safe environment.
Food as a window to children’s lives
Children’s relationship with, and attitude towards, food and eating provides a useful insight into their wider wellbeing, so in addition to toast in the mornings, children are offered fresh and dried fruit, rice cakes, crackers and bread sticks if needed.
The kitchen staff are also vigilant and talk to senior leaders if a child’s eating habits change. This whole-school approach provides a platform for gathering information about the children which allows staff to both personalise their learning and maintain a robust knowledge base if safeguarding concerns arise.
It’s good to talk
Providing a safe space for the children to talk, participate in therapeutic activities, or just sit and munch on a cracker for a few minutes in a quiet room facilitates an environment of trust and safety.
This gives the children the best possible chance of experiencing success in their learning. The word ‘successful’ can be heard frequently at Breakwater; the children are encouraged to aspire to succeed and achieve, and to present themselves as well as possible.
This includes standing or sitting up straight, smiling and greeting people around the academy, using full sentences when speaking and looking at whoever is speaking.
Curriculum content is designed to help the children acquire the vocabulary and language to understand and make links in the knowledge they are learning, but also to think critically, express their opinions and ask questions.
How is this linked to safeguarding? At Breakwater, the preventative safeguarding curriculum includes the premise that if children develop an awareness of who they are and how they fit into wider society (knowledge), and are able to express themselves appropriately (conduct), then they are better equipped to know that they are not safe, that something is not as it should be, and that they should share their concerns with an adult they trust.
Ultimately, students who feel safe and want to come to school simply achieve well, so academic achievement is the best it has ever been. Complacency is simply not an option.
How effective is our approach?
The holistic, embedded approach to safeguarding that is stitched into the fabric of Breakwater has had a transformational impact:
- Parental engagement and the quality of relationships is much improved and there is increased participation in parent consultations.
- A recent parent survey found 99% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that their child is well, safe and happy at Breakwater. The strength of this relationship places the school in a much better position to signpost services to parents as they are more willing to express a need for help, all of which contributes to a preventative approach to safeguarding.
- Attendance continues to improve and is now more frequently in line with national levels. Persistent absence, which is confined to a small number of pupils, has decreased.
- Suspensions are rare.
- Academic achievement, which in 2022 saw performance in statutory assessments in with line or exceeding national levels, is the best in the school’s history. Pupils’ performance in statutory assessments is in line with, or exceeding, national levels.
- Relationships between staff and pupils are positive, and the school environment exudes high expectations and care.
Zoё Griffiths is executive headeacher of Breakwater Academy, Newhaven