Charlton Park Academy is a Special School for students aged 11-19 in Greenwich, south London. The Academy formed part of the Thomas Tallis Partnership, which also included Thomas Tallis Secondary and Kidbrooke Park Primary School. This case study describes the key features and impacts of one of Charlton Park’s Learning Away experiences: a four-night, five-day work experience residential for post-16 students at Woodlarks Campsite in Surrey.
Setting the context
Each year, Charlton Park takes a group of post-16 students with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) to Woodlarks for a week of residential work experience. Students are trained to use tools and equipment they then use to work across the site, covering different areas of experience including grounds and premises management, woodwork and smaller construction projects. An extended interview with staff from Charlton Park brought about some valuable insights into features of the residential that were important for its success, and into the impact on the young people who took part. Key learning from this interview is outlined below.
Organising the residential – key features
Using a site that is set up for students with special needs made a difference to the residential’s outcomes because:
- all of the equipment needed to offer activities, at the right level of challenge and stimulus within a safe environment, was provided
- accommodation was fit for purpose
- Woodlarks has large areas of woodland, with accessible paths, so students of all abilities could spend extended time outside, which led to them having new and memorable experiences.
Staff felt that the outdoor countryside environment was important, particularly for students on the autistic spectrum. One member of staff gave the example of a boy with autism who spent a considerable amount of time looking at a sculpted owl in the grounds at Woodlarks. She wondered whether he would even have seen it if it had been in school because of its daily hustle and bustle, and concluded that it was the quiet and lack of distractions at Woodlarks site that enabled him to really engage with his surroundings.
Finding the right staff to go on the residential was important, both in terms of creating a team that could work together well on the residentials, and influence the school around residential practice. Staff found that a certain amount of continuity in the residential team year-on-year helped, as their own familiarity with the site and routines meant they could “push the students a bit more.”
Planning the residential as a staff team meant that it was not only more enjoyable, but more successful. As one staff member put it, “We really did enjoy it a lot more because we had a think about what activities worked in terms of long term goals. This year was much better because the achievement aims were much clearer.”
Working with parents/carers
The residential was seen as an opportunity by the school to spend time with parents/carers; talking to them about their children and how the residential might be valuable to them, with the outcome that there were closer working relationships between school and home. For some students, these conversations helped parents/carers and staff develop strategies that could “change a whole dynamic for a particular child, helping to break unhelpful habits and form new, more helpful, ones“.
Staff had to work quite hard with some parents/carers to convince them to let their child attend. In most cases, this was to do with parents’ anxiety that their child would cause a problem for staff whilst away, not that they did not want them to take part. Staff used video footage from previous residentials at Woodlarks to show parents/carers the site, as well as help them to get an idea of what a valuable experience the residential was for the students. This footage helped to allay any concerns parents/carers had about the residential, and for one student made the difference between him staying at home and taking part. Ideally, staff would also have liked to run one-night residentials for parents/carers and students together so that residential experiences were seen as ‘the norm’ and so home and school shared a common understanding about the aims of residentials.
Activities and equipment
The fact that the equipment at Woodlarks is adaptable and can be used by people of different abilities played a big part in the success of the residential’s work experience element. The equipment meant that students could carry out similar tasks to totally able-bodied young people, and that activities were both stimulating and challenging. For example, one member of staff talked about a student who had a leaf blower strapped to his electric wheel chair: “We’ve got him the hard hat, the safety glasses, the worker’s gloves, the high-vis vest, the steel capped boots and told him to clear the path and when he comes back he’s sitting two inches taller, because he’s involved, he’s actually interacted.” Another talked about a boy who had adapted cleaning tools attached to his wheelchair, which he thought were “amazing”; staff talked about how by using these tools he learned skills that he “can take home and then use for the future because it’s something that helps him being more independent.”
In addition to work experience activities, students had duties that helped keep communal areas clean and tidy, which staff felt were very useful in terms of building teamwork and a sense of community. Staff also organised ‘down time’ activities such as campfires and barbecues, and a night walk, all of which were new experiences for the students.
The site enables students to sleep in dorms, which was a new experience for many of them. Staff talked about the interaction between non-verbal students at night: “We could hear a couple of the students making noises. It was a lovely interaction, but really cheeky – like you would as a typical teenager trying to annoy the adults. It was a sense of them engaging in a way they normally never would have the opportunity to.” Students carried on this new level of interaction into their daily lives.
Living together also enabled some students to form close bonds, for example a group of girls who used the shower block at the same time, sharing tips and toiletries. The staff assigned with their personal care said this arrangement worked better for the students: “It’s one thing your teacher telling you, but when your friends or people you’re with tell you, you sort of listen – it was very good for them.”
Time – flexibility
Although the residential had clear structures, it allowed for flexibility, as was neatly summed up by this staff member: “Yes, you’ve got a timetable to keep things going smoothly, but it can be like if this activity takes a half hour or if this student wants to spend twenty minutes to thirty minutes just lying on the grass or sitting in the woods, then let them do it because they benefit so much more. It’s so much more relaxed and you’re not constantly clock-watching.” Other staff echoed her view of the residential being more relaxed and felt that being able to go with the flow gave the students more time to:
- engage with activities fully, including getting dirty, which was a new experience for some
- share experiences with each other and with staff
- experience the freedom of “I can just be, I don’t have to do anything” during informal time.
Staff also noted that the more relaxed atmosphere gave them time to try out new ways of being with students, sharing their own life experiences as well as having the time and space to try changing aspects of pedagogy, for example student groupings. The flexibility of the timetable gave them the opportunity to do this in a way that was completely student-centred.
The residential’s impacts
Social and life skills
The activities – both formal and informal – engaged students with learning new skills (e.g. food preparation, tidiness and hygiene, as well as the more specific work experience skills) that they could take forward, supporting their future independence. Although some of this learning happened explicitly, staff talked about the amount of social skills that students learnt from each other implicitly, just by interacting with different people outside the normal time constraints of school life. Students sustained this increased level of interaction after the residentials, so the learning from each other continued.
New habits and routines
Staff found that the residential environment and its increased level of physical exertion led to some major changes to unhelpful habits, particularly around food, sleep and activity levels.
Staff gave examples of students who had either changed their eating habits to include a wider variety of foods, or who had increased their calorie intake (and needed to) over the week: “He ate everything we put in front of him, and he’s now eating back at home and he’s back to normal.” In relation to sleep, staff talked about students who habitually slept for only a few hours a night sleeping for longer, and even having to be woken up in the morning having slept through the night. They also talked about students that were more active on the residential and carried on being more active back in school afterwards, for example being willing to walk more around school than they had been prior to the residential.
Staff felt that there was enormous impact in the area of relationships.
In terms of family relationships, staff reflected on the benefits to the student’s family of having a week’s respite, and of the new learning about their child that happened because of the residential. New habits and new skills meant that parents were more willing to allow their child to practise the independence they had developed on the residential once back at home. For example, one mum had stopped her daughter from using the trampoline in their garden through worry that she would hurt herself but, having seen the footage of her in action at Woodlarks, allowed her to start using it again as long as her brothers were around to watch out for her. Staff also talked about the residential providing new talking points for parents and students, which helped to improve communication at home.
Staff also noticed a big shift in student-staff relationships, which were sustained in the long term back at school after the residential. As one staff member summed up, “Since we’ve been there the relationships have got so, so strong.” They talked about students being much more communicative with them at school, and much more confident and jokey in this communication. Staff put this shift down to the amount of time spent together in a relaxed environment on the residential: “I think they see us in a different light” and “They see us more relaxed” and the shared memories that being part of the same community created, as these two staff members related:
“They remember certain things that staff have done, like burn the eggs at breakfast time and they come back talking about it to their friends.”
“It’s fun for them because it’s like ‘Ah we got one over you’. That will make a relationships for some children.”
Confidence, resilience and risk-taking
The extended time and freedom to develop relationships, learn new skills and extend boundaries in a safe setting and environment led to a marked increase in students’ confidence, resilience and level of risk-taking. Staff noticed students persevering with tasks they found challenging and developing an attitude of “If I get it wrong I can just start again.” Back in school they found students remained more open to new ideas and experiences, and more confident in their communication (as described above).
The culmination of the residential’s impacts enabled students to become more independent and to assert their wishes, rather than accept those of the adults around them on their behalf. The site and the opportunities it offered were paramount, as this staff member commented: “They can really be a lot more independent in a safe and really nurturing environment.” Being away from home was seen as another factor in developing independence, which staff saw as a particular challenge for lower-functioning students and those on the autistic spectrum.
As staff saw the significant impact of the learning from the residential, they made adjustments to their pedagogy. They developed a better understanding of the long-term skills their students needed, and consequently developed both the curriculum and informal time at school to be more skills-based. Sessions at school also became less tightly structured in order to encourage student engagement and independence, with one member of staff saying, “Thinking outside of the box and residentials really helped kick start that for me as I saw how much they could get out of it – those kind of interactions without the structure.” One member of staff also talked about the ‘awe and wonder’ moments she had witnessed on the residential and said that she actively looked for opportunities to create moment like that for her students at school.
In an ideal world…
If the staff at Charlton Park had a wish list (which others may want to act on) they would:
- Start residentials earlier in a student’s life – the earlier the better.
- Run one-night joint parent/carer-student-staff residentials to develop a shared understanding of their possibilities.
- Take students away for longer periods of time in order to help students push their boundaries further, having familiarised themselves with the new environment.
- Mix PMLD and higher-functioning students on residentials, so they could learn from each other and work together as a community.