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Supporting students with school avoidance behaviours and providing mental health and wellbeing support to Year 11 students

This case study is part of a bitesize CPD learning unit on anxiety.

In the following video, pastoral manager Gary Scott-Mullen and head of Year 11 Mat Grafton, both from Orchard School, Bristol, outline some of their current approaches to the provision of mental health and wellbeing support to Year 11 students. In particular, they discuss how the have worked together to help students with school avoidance behaviours to continue their learning and attend school again where possible.

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Hello, my name is Gary Scott-Mullen. And I’m the pastoral manager for Year 11 at Orchard School in Bristol. My responsibility is for the pastoral wellbeing of Year 11 students at our school. And that extends to attendance, safeguarding, exam support, and helping secure appropriate future courses for our vulnerable students at post-16 providers. 

My name is Mat Grafton. I’ve been the head of Year 11 at Orchard School for the past few years. My responsibilities are shared with Gary. And I’m also responsible for securing positive outcomes for all our students and planning appropriate interventions to help ensure that happens. One thing we have been really clear about is that supporting pupil mental health has been key to any progress we have made in securing positive relationships, maximising pupil’s ability to learn effectively, and feeling confident to have high aspirations for future choices. 

Our setting is an 11–16 academy in an area of North Bristol with relatively high levels of disadvantage. 50 per cent or more of our students qualify for free school meals funding. We feed into a wide range of tertiary education options across the whole of Bristol. The challenges that might normally be associated with Year 11 have been exacerbated by the pandemic, as has been the case with all schools. We will try and discuss some of the issues we’ve faced in our approach, including some successes and challenges. 

OK. So what have we done? Well, at the start of the year, we found that there were a significant number of students who were displaying school avoidance behaviours. By taking a positive, collaborative approach with parents and students, we were able to build relationships that really led to positive change. We were always careful to take a non-judgemental, can-do approach, and to be future-facing rather than trying to dwell on previous issues in non-attendance. 

We were also relentless. Relentless for us meant not shirking difficult conversations but always looking for a solution-focused outcome. For some students, that meant going to their houses to pick them up for school. In the most severe cases of school avoidance, we ensured online learning with personal follow-up from teachers taking place. 

We also arranged for some exams to be sat with an invigilator in the student’s house, such was their level of need. This involved many conversations with the parent and with the student, who on some occasions responded when the parent had said that it just wouldn’t be possible. 

Another example was a student who had what appeared to be severe school avoidance, something that started during Year 10. By working closely with the mother, Gary established that the root cause of the school avoidance was twofold — the sheer distance from the school that the student lived, which represented a real barrier to attendance, and an untreated sleep condition that resulted in the student often being too tired to attend during the day. 

By supporting the mother to make medical appointments for the students, treatment was offered to support the sleeping issues. In addition, Gary often drove directly to the house to collect the student, thus removing a barrier to learning, but equally significantly, building trust with the student and his parent. The student went on to sit on all his exams, successfully attending under his own steam. He also made positive post-16 choices that demonstrate an improved level of confidence and aspiration. 

More broadly, we adopted an approach whereby we could check in with every student every day. One consequence of COVID was that Year 11 students were located in a specific part of the school for tutor time and many of their lessons. A positive side effect of this was that we had a high level of contact with students and could relatively easily check in with our more vulnerable students on a regular basis. 

Our pastoral office was placed in such a position that we could see all students arrive and leave during the day. We could take approaches to individual students’ wellbeing without drawing attention to them. For some students, the chance to drop in and have a daily check-in conversation was sufficient. For others, a cup of tea or coffee was the catalyst for a deeper conversation. 

Keeping in touch was crucial in supporting wellbeing. With their consents, we would often communicate with students directly via their own mobile phone if they were absent or suffering from poor mental health. We felt this was an approach that had some merit with older Year 11 students and utilised a medium that they were comfortable with. 

For other students for whom the need was perceived to be greater, we were able to access in-school and external counselling services and make wide referrals to CAMHS, as would be the case in other schools. It is worth mentioning the crucial role played by our tutors in supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing. 

The hours spent each day with their students enabled them to have a great overview of changes in students’ wellbeing, enabled them to react and act in response to issues, passing on information promptly if students required additional support. We had daily catch-ups with all the tutors partly as a result of our location within the school, which really enabled us to provide high levels of support. 

How can we measure the effectiveness of our approach? Attendance for Year 11 was high throughout the year and exceeded that of other year groups. It also improved steadily throughout the year, which we felt was one indicator of success. And it showed that students could see the purpose of being in school and were happy to attend. In summary, our strategy took many forms. But underlying it all was a relentless, positive, blame-free approach to supporting our students’ wellbeing. It was crucial not to have a one-size-fits-all approach. 

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