With Samuel Ward Academy Trust bidding to build two new special schools in Ipswich and Romford, we spoke to Georgina Ellis, headteacher of our Churchill Special Free School, about what is the secret behind their success. Churchill was rated as 'Outstanding' by Ofsted in 2015.
What is the philosophy of Churchill School?
It is about high quality education for everybody, it is about individual needs being met and children succeeding because they have the education they are entitled to.
Why do you think it is viewed as an ‘Outstanding’ school?
I think it is because of the commitment and determination from everybody at the school including staff, pupils, parents and other stakeholders. There is a great team of staff at Churchill while you also need commitment and trust from parents. The relationship we build with pupils is also key – we always insist that we put children at the centre of everything we do and every decision we make.
How do you support the pupils at Churchill?
When a child starts here, we always talk to them about having a new start, building new relationships and building new memories. We work very hard to build a positive relationship with that child. Whether their needs are around speech and language, physical, sensory or social, we put a plan in place to ensure we take them forward. We then keep looking at that plan and adjusting and adapting whenever necessary. We offer a mainstream curriculum (with the exception of a foreign language) and we expect our children to achieve GCSEs. There are also extra opportunities for life skills which include working on relationships and building self confidence and self-esteem.
How could you translate this success into other special free schools?
There should be a principle of high expectations whichever school you work in. I think it is crucial to have an in-depth knowledge of every individual child at the school. It is also important to know the strengths and areas for development within your team and then to work within those boundaries. You should have high expectations for learning, and of staff and students, and that shouldn’t change for any school in the country. What changes is the needs of the particular pupils in any school.
How do you decide on the curriculum?
It goes back to selecting what is appropriate for the cohort of children you have. A headteacher of a special school must decide what is relevant and not relevant to students’ needs. A school must then evolve and develop around the young people. There should be a really powerful message around ownership. At Churchill, we spend a lot of time talking to our students about what they want from their school.
What attracted you to the position of headteacher of a special school?
I have always had a lot of interest in special needs education. When I was 14 or 15, I spent my holidays working at MENCAP supporting their summer play schemes and I was a SENCO in my first year as a newly-qualified teacher – something I continued through my entire career. Churchill Special Free School has been open for five years and I have always been headteacher. It is the hardest job I have ever done but easily the most rewarding. The students are fantastic and it is amazing to see their progress. To me, they are the best group of students you can work with as they are so honest. It gives you a real opportunity to make an impact.
Can you give us an example of how you have made that impact?
There are always cases. We had one young man who came here four years ago and left us in the summer to pursue his preferred career at college. He now has a good group of friends and is back in the mainstream environment. That is what we aim for in all our students.