If you could get inside a teenager’s head (now there’s a scary thought) and delve beneath all that moping and glowering, their wishes in life are probably not dissimilar to these:
“I want a boyfriend, a flat, a car and a job.”
Certainly, the 14-year-old me couldn’t wait to move out of my parents’ house and the small and just so uncool Cumbrian town we lived in. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but as long as my life looked something like the set of Friends* I’d be happy.
And although it can take some time to iron out the details, for most teenagers it’s a given that they’ll get the flat, the job, the car. That’s not the case for all young people, though.
The Key’s Special Schools Summit last week closed with a presentation from Jarlath O’Brien, headteacher at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey. Pupils at Carwarden House have a range of needs, including autism, Down’s syndrome and other conditions associated with learning difficulties. For many of these pupils, life after school may be a difficult and uncertain place.
Jarlath told us that the school carried out a survey of pupils and parents a couple of years ago, wanting to find out what was important to them and how they would define ‘success’ at school.
The pupils, typical teenagers, all said that in the future they wanted a girlfriend or boyfriend, some money, a car and a flat of their own. No surprises there.
The responses from their parents, however, were a bit of an eye-opener. Far from worrying about test results and progress measurements (though these things weren’t unimportant), they said their greatest hope for their children was simply the chance of an independent life.
I can’t imagine how hard it must be not to know whether your child will ever be able to leave home or get a job. My mum fretted over a whole host of things with me and my siblings – our grades, the music we listened to, the pallid shade of our skin when we didn’t leave the house for days – but she never had to worry that we wouldn’t all become independent adults eventually.
Carwarden House wants to give its pupils the best possible chance of achieving the independence that other young people so often take for granted, and this is built into the ethos, vision and teaching at the school.
Jarlath explained that employment is a major step towards achieving independence, and that work experience is an integral part of the curriculum at Carwarden House. Pupils spend time with local businesses, from hotels to mechanics, developing their skills and gaining crucial experience in a work environment. Half the battle, he said, is showing employers, as well as the pupils themselves, what young people with learning difficulties are capable of achieving.
Another special school that focuses on preparing pupils for life beyond the school gates is Fosse Way School in Bath and North East Somerset, which I visited last year.
Fosse Way has recently opened an ‘enterprise centre’, an office space where sixth-form students can become familiar with a professional environment while learning how to write a CV, answer interview questions and take public transport independently. The students also undertake work placements in the local area and plan their own business ventures – with the revenue being reinvested in the centre.
The school also has a café, open to the public, where pupils complete placements and work towards qualifications in hospitality and catering. I spent a lunchtime there and can wholeheartedly recommend the clotted cream scones!
Developing this type of provision takes a lot of time and investment, and not every school is in a position to follow the same path. However, there are smaller things that you can do to give pupils opportunities to succeed.
Take Carwarden House, for example: if you’re attending a staff ‘do’, you won’t see a single shop-bought Colin the Caterpillar cake (a particular favourite at The Key). Instead, the school orders homemade treats from a student who wants to be a baker. Similarly, Fosse Way employs one of its ex-pupils as a part-time groundskeeper.
In his presentation, Jarlath O’Brien emphasised that you have to challenge your own expectations and think creatively to help young people achieve their aims. It is about having high aspirations for all your pupils and reflecting this in how you teach them every day. By doing so, you give them the best chance at a successful, independent life after they leave you.
* My friend actually had a ‘Ross’s tan’ moment once. That’s when I knew I’d finally made it.
If, like Carwarden House, you’re thinking of surveying parents about your provision, you might find our article on questionnaires for parents about SEN a useful start (log-in required).
Members of The Key for School Leaders can also use our ‘template pupil passport’ to capture information about what matters to pupils, and record pupils’ progress towards their outcomes.