New school at Wickham Market offers a totally different way of learning
- Credit: Archant
School doesn’t work for everyone but for children with mental health issues there’s often little else on offer to turn around lives at risk of stalling before they’ve even got started. Until now... As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, Sheena Grant reports on one woman’s bold new venture.
Many people harbour dreams of quitting their day job for something they feel passionate about. But few get further than dreaming.
Bev Clark is an exception.
The safeguarding and education professional left her job at the start of the year to concentrate on setting up a new venture that’s been 18 months in the planning and has the power to transform the lives of children for whom mainstream school isn’t working.
Her vision of offering alternative education to 11 to 16-year-olds in need has now been realised in the shape of PLOT, a community interest company delivering bespoke learning, therapy and training on a farm at Wickham Market.
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Classes are small - PLOT caters for up to 12 children at a time - and nurturing, focussed on building confidence and self-esteem through tailored education programmes, creativity, reflection and lots of outdoor learning, team-building and engagement with the natural world. It also offers vocational qualifications as part of a package designed to have a real impact on pupils’ life chances.
And already it’s making a difference, with children - some of whom had not been in school or education for months - engaged and attendance at 100%.
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“We’ve only been open a short time but already we can see an increase in confidence,” says Bev, who previously ran safeguarding training for schools across the county and was motivated to act after becoming increasingly concerned about the rise in mental health issues she saw in young people and how this affected their education.
“Many refuse school due to anxiety or depression, experience bullying and are excluded due to non-attendance,” she says. “Some have had traumatic experiences and struggle with their emotional regulation or find it difficult to build friendships or manage the day-to-day structure of school. I wanted to do something about it so I set up this community interest company to try and make a difference.
“I spent months planning and getting through quality assurance processes before quitting my job, convincing four other professionals to do the same and opening this skills centre for those who are struggling at school, where they can come and learn a vocational qualification.”
PLOT opened its doors in February. It has two large workshops where youngsters can learn art, woodwork and other practical skills, an outdoor classroom to develop an understanding of conservation and the environment, a resident therapist, trained therapy dog and sheep (arriving soon) that youngsters will help to care for. A typical day begins using the P4C philosophy for children framework, features workshop time, team-building activities and ends with reflection on what has been achieved. Students help prepare lunch and outdoor cooking is a regular on the curriculum. Each child has a personal tutor.
Pupils come from across the county, can study health and fitness, business and enterprise, creative studies, early years and childcare, employability skills and uniformed services and can take V Cert qualifications, high-quality, technical alternatives to GCSEs.
“This is really important as these qualifications can lead to employment or further education as many of the children we work with would otherwise be at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training) when they reach 16. Suffolk already has a high ratio of NEET children,” says Bev.
“We have only 12 places per day as we want it keep small to help those who are most vulnerable, build their confidence and self-esteem and then tap into their talents and interests so they can go forward and gain essential skills.”
In order to give pupils the attention they need PLOT - an acronym for Philosophy for learning, Life skills for development, Opportunities to progress and Tenacity to embrace - has a high staff ratio. The team includes Bev’s partner, Michael Knight, who is outdoor curriculum lead, therapist Fran Southwell and assessment coordinator Jasmine Skingsley.
But budgets are tight and Bev is looking for financial support, donations and fundraising ideas to enhance learning and maybe even buy a horse for children to ride and nurture. Among the events already planned is a black tie ball at Kersey in September. To find out more visit the website at www.plotcic.co.uk.
‘It’s the light at the end of a dark tunnel’
It’s no exaggeration to say PLOT has been the answer to Caroline Rose’s prayers.
Her son, Ralph, now 12, was left with post traumatic stress disorder after he was attacked by another child at the age of just five and has been unable to attend mainstream school successfully for large amounts of time since.
“Thank God PLOT came along,” says Caroline, who lives at Barham. “It has made such a difference to Ralph. He attends two days a week at the moment and he is a changed boy. He is so much more positive, engaged and talking about what he wants to do in the future. He feels safe at PLOT. He thoroughly enjoys being there. I can’t believe the difference in him; I can honestly say it is the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
“He doesn’t feel anxious at PLOT. There’s only a small number of children there and high numbers of staff, who are all trained to deal with children with anxiety and other mental health issues. It’s very relaxed and as well as learning, it’s about building their confidence without the pressure you get in schools. It’s a totally different way of learning . That is the key.”