How Sheffield Inclusion Centre has adapted to ensure city’s most vulnerable pupils are supported during lockdown
When Tuesday Rhodes became the new headteacher of the Sheffield Inclusion Centre, little did she know that just six months later the school would have to adapt to help its students during a worldwide pandemic.
Based on Spring Lane, Arbourthorne, The Sheffield Inclusion Centre is one of the biggest pupil referral units (PRU) in the country and has both primary and secondary departments taking young people who, for a variety of reasons, have been permanently excluded from mainstream schools.
The principal goal, according to Ms Rhodes, is to eventually return all the youngsters back to a mainstream school – currently though only a fraction do as often other factors in their lives or undiagnosed special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) can make that difficult.
Now, due to Covid-19, some of the challenges faced by the young people at the Sheffield Inclusion Centre have only intensified but the school has been able to adapt with a team of dedicated staff working around the clock to help reach the city’s most vulnerable students during these unprecedented times.
During the lockdown, the centre has been open for children with a social worker, with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in place and those who may have otherwise found the coronavirus-imposed restrictions challenging.
A number of students, however, can’t or won’t attend so other measures have been introduced or expanded with staff sometimes going above and beyond to support those in need.
Ms Rhodes said: “We have virtual education for a very small minority of our children and that was in place beforehand, this is supported with home visits and one to one tuition at home.
“That’s expanded, we've got online learning which is following the curriculum without any work with a teacher and then we have Ed Class. This allows our young people to interact in live lessons with a teacher.
“When Covid-19 hit, the key thing for me was that I didn’t want any child to fall through the net,” Ms Rhodes added.
“I wanted to make sure that at least once a week we’d seen a child or spoken to a child and that we’d definitely spoken to the family. In addition, every child will get a visit fortnightly, we’ve got capacity for about 130 students but actually have around 250 on our roll.
“We've had staff who - when other agencies have been working from home - will go out and visit families. They’ve been absolutely brilliant.”
For some families experiencing difficulties, the school has been providing daily calls and calls with therapists and trauma-informed specialists.
And, with a limited number of laptops available to give to children, the team of over 30 staff have been delivering work packs fortnightly along with free school meal vouchers and food hampers.
Some Year 10 pupils have now been welcomed back to the Spring Lane centre, mainly on a one-to-one basis in order to adhere to social distancing rules.
Going forward, Ms Rhodes says the plan is to open more widely to all of her young people using a number of small ‘bases’ across Sheffield which, in the long term, will hopefully change the provision for permanently excluded young people in the city.
Each of the eight bases – in Parson Cross, Herdings Park, Woodthorpe, Fir Vale, Wicker, Graves Park, Firth Park, and Southey Green – will have the capacity for up to 10 young people and will be used for those with very low levels of attendance and engagement.
They will be staffed by a teacher, teaching assistant and a learning mentor who will work closely with the families to ensure the children attend and follow a pathway appropriate to the young person to get them back on track.
“In the last few years, attendance has been very low – it’s been around 50 per cent and just over,” Ms Rhodes said. “Therefore, even though we’ve got these children on roll, not many of them are actually coming to school.
“These are the most vulnerable children in the city, and while not attending are becoming socially isolated or, at worse, vulnerable to criminal or sexual exploitation.
“So the idea is, with the small bases, is to make sure that they have a sense of belonging to a school and staff who are in their own community.
“Although we’re a school, I would say a lot of our work is social work. We do an awful lot of going out, sitting with families and building those relationships and helping them access support.”
It is hoped the bases will allow young people to have an education within their own community, allowing the school to take advantage of community links that it is eager to build.
Ms Rhodes said: “We want to provide a wraparound service around our young people to give them more of a chance of success.
“We are moving from a school that permanently excluded young people were supposed to come to no matter where they lived, to a local community-focused chain of bases appropriate and personalised to the individual.”
Elsewhere, as the Year 11 leaving date passed last week, the school will be investing in a team of transition coaches who will be working intensively with young people and their families until January to help them find the right provision Post 16.
Ms Rhodes said: “Many of our young people leave us to go to fulfilling careers, many become entrepreneurs.
“However some find it difficult to find and sustain Post 16 placement, so when colleges and training providers haven’t been able to interview face to face or have taster days due to Covid-19, we predicted more difficulties hence the introduction of the transition coaches.
“I’m wanting to employ people from the communities where the rate of not being in education is high.”
The school team is also passionate about closing the gap for BAME young people who make up 52 per cent of those who have been permanently excluded from mainstream schools and are educated at the Sheffield Inclusion Centre.
The centre is now beginning a project with two other schools and two academics around the barriers facing our BAME young people.
“These numbers are obviously disproportionate and reflect a real systemic unconscious bias,” Ms Rhodes said. “As an educator, I feel it is my responsibility to keep this inequity at the top of the agenda by keeping councillors, politicians and headteachers reflecting and being accountable for the inequality of experience and opportunity.”
Looking back on her 10 months, Ms Rhodes said there is still more to be done for “our amazing young people” at the Inclusion Centre.
“But, out of the challenges and heartbreak of Covid-19 has come a knowledge that I have the staff team who can turn the school around from what I inherited as ‘requires improvement’ with just over 50 per cent attendance to a good or outstanding school with engaged attending young people,” she added.
To get involved with Sheffield Inclusion Centre as a role model or transition coach email [email protected]