The year 3 therapeutic classroom continues to go well at Shevington Vale Primary School in Wigan. In fact, everyone has gotten so used to the room it feels like it was always there! It is lovely for me to see the photos of the children learning in their environments and enjoying the space.
But in the back of my mind throughout this journey I have always wondered what an Ofsted inspector would make of these changes.
Would such a different approach to classroom set-up be accepted? Indeed, is the value and role of the classroom environment given enough attention when inspections take place? Is pupil wellbeing really a focus? Are inspectors aware of the benefits of trauma-informed practices? Fundamentally, would they “get it”? Well, Ofsted called – and they were coming to Shevington Vale!
Now it is important to note here that Shevington Vale has been working with me on its Therapeutic School Award, looking at their understanding of mental health and trauma, their behaviour policy, PSHE lessons, therapeutic language and responses, and the overall wellbeing of the children.
This would all be reflected in what Ofsted inspected and headteacher Andy Houghton and the team have worked hard to weave the approach throughout their school culture. But for now, I want to focus on the classroom.
Common issues for our pupils
I often speak to headteachers who are resistant to some of the changes I suggest for fear of what Ofsted will think. For example, I often suggest the removal of all display boards from around the classroom. “But Ofsted want them,” is a common response.
There is a misconception that display boards are essential and relevant, but this is an old narrative. When I ask children what stops them concentrating in their classroom, one of the things they often refer to is the display boards. They tell me that the room is full of information, and it can become overwhelming and stop them concentrating. Often, they cannot even see them properly.
This week, a year 4 girl told me: “There is so much stuff around the room, like stuff for geography, maths, English. It can sometimes help me, but sometimes when I am trying to concentrate on one thing, all the other things around the room mess with my head.”
So, we must ask ourselves: is it worth having all this stuff up just because we think Ofsted wants it? Or do we need to start asking ourselves what the children want?
When I first developed the therapeutic school award, I based my concept of the therapeutic classroom on theory, experience and my own conviction. I then began to ask the children themselves and was surprised at how aligned their voices were to my vision.
I am still surprised at the consistency of their responses even now. It doesn’t matter if they are in Northumberland, London, Wales, or Wigan – the answers are always the same. The top three responses are:
- The chairs hurt my bum and it is hard to get comfy. That makes it hard to concentrate. The hole in the chair irritates my back.
- The room is cluttered, busy and overwhelming and the work, washing lines, laminated prompts, etc make it hard to focus and think clearly.
- The lights are too bright and make my eyes hurt. When I close them, I can still see the dots in front of me. It makes it hard for me to concentrate and it hurts my head.
An inspector calls
Even though I believe in these approaches, when Andy told me Ofsted was coming to visit, I got a ping of worry and anxiety: “What if they say it isn’t allowed, what if they don’t get it, what if schools stop being brave enough to make the changes?”
The school was expecting the call as it had been five years since the previous inspection. “But we weren’t expecting a Section 5,” Andy explained. “Two inspectors over two days, more deep dives than a submarine and of course judgements in all key areas.”
I’ll let Andy pick up the story: “Our school (like many) has been on a huge journey which has included a closure, a refurbishment and a complete curriculum redesign. We were ready, confident and therapeutic.
“Inspections are brutal. There’s no other way to describe the process. You’re constantly fighting to show what you and your children can do. “However, what became evident over the two days was that our approach was threaded through our curriculum. It was embedded to an extent that the ‘abnormal’ was normalised. Our pupils shared how our ‘teachers don’t shout’, that our classrooms are calm, and that they all want their room to look like year 3.
“The lead inspector described the ‘uniqueness’ of our school and how both children and adults felt that their wellbeing was at the forefront of all our decision-making.
“The discussion around our ‘interesting interiors’ was driven by our passion to create a beautiful school building which puts mental health at the heart of what we do. Our rationale was never questioned and only backed up what both inspectors saw and heard over the two days.
“The final few hours were tough going with last-minute questions and constant running for evidence, but the day ended with the lead inspector taking a seat in our Spa Garden and smiling when I offered her a pair of slippers. An actual smile. From an Ofsted inspector. Job done.
“We achieved an overall good, with outstanding in personal development. Looking back, I’ll always feel we could have or even should have fared better – but where no doubt was cast was that when it comes to how we personally develop a child we are top of our game – and we couldn’t be prouder of this.”
Don’t be afraid!
It is a concern that school leaders and teachers are afraid to take down display boards and make informed decisions about what is right for their children for fear of Ofsted.
If schools are to be assessed on whether they are offering quality education, ensuring good outcomes and performance, then that must also include assessing whether the children feel safe, whether they are comfortable, and have the right conditions to learn.
Adverse experiences, deprivation, living in care, living with technology and social media, and hormones all affect a child’s ability to learn, concentrate and feel calm. The last thing we need is to add an uncomfortable chair, bright lights, and an overwhelming interior to the mix.
There are so many quick wins to improve the therapeutic learning environment (see my last diary entry). It is about time we started listening to pupils. They tell me they want better chairs with soft backs and cushions, that they want lamps and fairy lights and dim lighting. They say they would like better tables and less stuff around the room. Then they tentatively tell me that it would be great to have a sofa and a “chill-out area”:
- “It would be good to be able to chill out somewhere with my friends and relax after working hard”
- “If I don’t want to go outside, I can sit and read and relax”
- “When I get angry, or frustrated, it would be good to be able to go and get a blanket and chill for a bit to help me calm down.”
Sometimes change needs to happen from the bottom to adapt the expectations at the top. Let’s be brave and create disruptive change, that begins to alter perceptions, raise awareness, and question the status quo.
Therapeutic classrooms can be a reality for every classroom. We just need to be brave enough to change so that Ofsted and others can see the benefits.
This article was written for Head Teachers update: 20 June 2022
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