CfESEND blog: putting SEND at the heart of Weston College to ensure no learners are left behind

Blog by Dr Paul Phillips, Principal and Chief Executive at Weston College, for the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme.

Supporting leaders in the sector

Whether it’s providing farm placements or much-needed structure through digital platforms, putting learners with SEND front and centre always makes sense. Since 2001, my mission has been to place inclusive practice at the centre of Weston College. When offered the chance to run a college “my way'” it was daunting – miles from home, failing and in poor financial health. But these circumstances allowed me to fulfil my vision of placing learners with SEND at the heart of my strategic plan. The reason? I believe that if you get teaching right for these learners, then you get it right for everyone.

Outstanding teaching and learning requires a “personal individualised” approach, and the best practice we have developed for learners with SEND here has gone on to benefit everyone.

I had some inspirational staff, ahead of their time regarding SEND strategies. However, it was not easy to convince governors and wider staff of the direction of travel. Back in 2001 the college had eight learners with SEND, taught in dilapidated facilities at the back of the site. I placed these learners in the most visible location to set the scene for the new college mission, “creating brighter futures”.

To their credit, staff quickly got on board. Since then we’ve transformed ourselves from an FE provider offering pockets of inclusion to a fully inclusive organisation delivering FE. This has been achieved through investing in continuous professional development to degree level, a motivational career structure, SEND support hubs at every campus and about £2.5 million invested in specialist facilities, such as Weston Bay, our autism residential training facility and sensory learning base. “It’s crucial that learners with SEND are not lost at this critical moment in their education.”

Today we have more than 1,300 learners with SEND (511 with high needs) on employability, apprenticeship and degree programmes. Progression rates are exceptional (97 per cent) with 33 per cent into employment (compared with six per cent nationally). The aspirational place that SEND holds within the college’s strategic plan has been even more evident during Covid-19. 

The senior leadership team designed our lockdown EdTech strategy to focus on “digital inclusion”; the impact of this meant over 90 per cent virtual attendance from learners with SEND throughout the pandemic.

MS Teams screen of virtual teaching at Weston CollegeWe launched the #MyVirtualCollege concept, which meant all learners and especially learners with SEND still felt part of the college through digitally accessible courses, timetables, support sessions, tutors and the wider college community. Innovative virtual teaching operated through Microsoft Teams, involving fun team challenges and activities including mindfulness to reduce isolation. This provided learners with a much- needed structure, establishing new routines and connectivity. In using these real-world technologies, learners with SEND maintained friendship groups and developed wider skills and behaviours that are transferable to the workplace of the future.

For some learners with SEND, removing the distractions and anxiety of a classroom environment through the virtual platform has had an extremely positive impact on achievement, and is a lesson learnt for our future curriculum design.

Classroom layout at Weston College with social distancing measuresIn returning to face-to-face delivery, this has presented many new challenges, anxiety has been high as many learners had not left their homes for six months or accessed any school education during the lockdown period. To prepare learners for the new academic year, the college remained open during the summer break and we provided extensive support and transition programmes. We quickly realised that a “recovery curriculum” was needed, focusing on mental health and well-being, reducing anxiety and training new learners in accessing our blended model of classroom and remote delivery. In the main, learners have settled well into the new environment and are excited to be back, adapting seamlessly to the new college ways of working. We have been taken aback by their resilience and enthusiasm.

Even the most anxious learners have finally returned because of the innovative and creative strategies utilised by the incredible specialist staff. We have further invested in our resources, now providing alternative re-engagement opportunities within a local chilly farm enabling ‘engagement to employment’. It’s crucial that learners with SEND are not lost at this critical moment in their education. If colleges prioritise them, these learners have brilliant opportunities ahead of them.

The SEND Strategic Leadership hub will shape the sector for future resilience, with more leaders in place the scope for development in this area is without end.

“The Weston College is a model of outstanding practice for FE in so many ways and has always been a great role model for the sector. I know that I and many other FE professionals will learn a great deal from the excellent example the Centre offers.” Dr Anne Murdoch OBE, Senior Advisor, College Leadership, Association of School and College Leaders.

Please get in touch if you would like to find out more about the work of our CfE in SEND (People) and how senior managers can access Dr Paul’s leadership support activities at the leadership hub: CfESEND@weston.ac.uk

For further details of the ETF Centres for Excellence in SEND, webinar recordings, resources and toolkits, visit the SEND Excellence Gateway

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