Ensuring SEND students thrive

Renee Flourentzou

Renee Flourentzou, is Head of School at West Lea’s Learning for Life Campus, catering to students 14 - 25 with SEND. She established West Lea’s Supported Internship Programme and spearheads efforts to remove barriers to employment and tackle inequalities. Before joining West Lea, Renee founded Edmonton Community Partnership – 23 schools collaborating to raise aspirations and improve outcomes for families in disadvantaged communities. She holds an MA in Child Studies from KCL, focussed on children’s rights, education and child protection.

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Hoping to empower educators with the knowledge of how to prepare young people with SEND for life beyond the classroom, Renee illustrates the methods they use at West Lea to ensure their students are as fully equipped as they can be for the next chapter of their lives and able to thrive once they leave school.

Figures published by the Department for Education in July this year show that for the third year in a row, the number of pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) has risen. Meaning there are now 1.3 million pupils with SEND across the United Kingdom, equivalent to 14.9 per cent of all pupils. Yet employment rates for young people with SEND remain low and the potential of too many young people is being squandered. This is an issue we must all work together to address.

Young people with SEND understandably often find the transition from education to work difficult. For some, leaving the safe confines of school to find their own path and become independent can be a daunting and difficult prospect. This is why at West Lea we provide ‘learning for life’ from the moment a student joins us, right up to the point they leave, to prepare our students for success in the real world ahead of them, and to ensure they have the confidence and skills to fulfil their potential. 

Our approach to ‘Learning for Life’ is focused on ensuring that everyone is valued and included. This ethos is common across all our campuses and is centred on innovation, independence and inclusion. We aim to equip each pupil with a ‘suitcase’ of skills to help them build the confidence and knowledge to progress onto further education and into the world of work. We seek to challenge our students and teach them not to shy away from anything – we want them to understand the value that they, like anyone else can bring to society, and that nothing is out of reach with the right support. 

In order to have the greatest impact, the ‘learning for life’ journey must be engrained into every aspect of school life and must also go way beyond the classroom and the school gates, extending into the local community. 

Parental buy-in and understanding are also crucial. Real impact and successful outcomes are only possible when parents and carers embrace our ethos and we work closely together to help their child fulfil their potential. We work hard to achieve this and to bring parents and carers along on this learning for life journey by ensuring that they understand the end goal and how to work towards it. This involves a certain degree of trust and confidence, which is crucial to ensure that our students have the opportunity to test and practice their life skills and to take managed risks and push barriers. 

Our approach to ‘Learning for life’ is centred around our ‘passports’ approach. These passports contain five key areas based on research and evidence-based practice, that young people need to build skills around in order to succeed. These include community engagement; travel and work skills; managing medication; self-care and daily living; and, social and communication skills. The passports are used to monitor and guide students throughout their school life, both inside and outside the classroom. As students develop these key skills and complete elements within each section, achieving a certain level in each area, they receive a stamp and gain certificates. At the end of the year, we hold a graduation to celebrate their achievements.

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The passports accompany pupils throughout their whole journey through the school. At different stages (as our school is split over three campuses) we use the passports to help motivate pupils to accomplish different things and gain new skills. The journey begins at primary level in the Meridian Campus where we begin taking our students out into the community for example visit the shops, learn how to handle money and budget, as well as teaching them basic cookery skills and how to navigate transport systems. For many, this will be their first taste of genuine independence and helps to inspire and give them the confidence to try new things and take on new challenges. We then gradually seek to build on this as they progress through the school.

Between the ages of 11 and 14, students attend the Haselbury campus where they begin to target more advanced elements in their passports. By this stage, a number of students have learned to travel to school independently, many go on residentials and take part in after-school clubs and trips. It is incredibly important that students engage and interact in activities within school and the community, building their confidence and learning to take managed risks. 

Student development continues further when they join the ‘Learning for Life’ campus (14-25-year olds). Here, our focus is on ensuring pupils are prepared for work, putting everything they’ve learnt and the skills they’ve acquired into practice. For example, all our Key Stage 4 students visit college one day a week and take part in work experience to help prepare them for their next steps. Experiencing the ‘working world’ and further education provides our pupils with a greater understanding of what to expect and lessens their anxiety about making the transition. Our passports allow us to assess pupil’s development and ensure they remain on track to be able to take that next step and thrive in whatever the subsequent chapter of their journey may be.

In addition to this, we provide supported internships for pupils aged 16-25 across Enfield. The programme offers four days a week in a workplace with the support of a West Lea job coach.

Our students tell us that the experience gained through these internships has been beneficial and inspiring. It has helped them to realise their own potential and reinstate belief amongst themselves and their parents that there are plenty of opportunities out there for them and that they have the skillset and knowledge to make a valuable contribution to society. It’s been fantastic to see our students gaining employment through this scheme (90% in an initial pilot) and the majority of these fantastic young people have remained employed. Last academic year, the number of students who secured internships doubled – with 75 per cent remaining in employment. These figures are particularly impressive when considering the current employment landscape. We believe this illustrates the difference we are making and how we are helping to society open their eyes to a pool of undiscovered talent.

We aim to ensure that the work we do makes a tangible difference to these young people’s lives, improves their prospects of employment and enables them to play an active role in their communities, whilst more broadly helping to alter societal perceptions of young people with SEND. We are aware that our students will still face tests and challenges as they go out into the world, but the opportunities are there, and we believe we have developed methods that can truly make a difference and help all our young people to find a purpose and fulfil their potential.

Read more about West Lea at www.westleaschool.co.uk.

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