Animals, including alpacas and chickens, are helping children who have suffered “horrific life experiences.”
The Place Independent School, located on a 15-acre farm on the Belvoir Castle Estate, is working well, with Ofsted inspectors giving it an across-the-board “good” rating in their first assessment.
The Place opened just over a year ago, aiming to help young people whose needs cannot be met in mainstream schools. The private school was built on an alternative education provision run by a company called Creative Family Solutions, which has operated since 2014.
Headteacher Cate Tumman explained: “We specialise in providing a unique experience for young people with complex attachment experiences and past trauma.”
It means that if a child does something wrong, rather than be punished, the focus will be on consequences and repair. They are also rewarded if “caught doing the right thing.”
Around a dozen children aged seven to 14 are at the school, travelling from Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
They are all in some form of care, such as foster care, residential care and one is adopted.
Cate explained: “They are looked-after children, currently in care, who have suffered horrific early life experiences.
“We are like a little family, our children do come to school and hug our teachers. If they want to sit on a teacher’s knee they will, because they have had these early life experiences.
“All the children relate to each other really well because of the experiences they have in common.”
The school focuses on outdoor learning, with adventurous activities and animal-based learning - a bespoke experience tailored to the needs of the individual child.
The rural, open spaces also help, along with the chickens, pigs, ponies and alpacas.
Cate continued: “If things aren’t going well, the children can have a run around the farm. They can talk to the animals. The animals act as an anchor and are a big, positive influence.”
In some cases, the lives of the animals mirrors that of the children, with some ponies and other animals rehomed from rescue centres. The young people enjoy helping them recover and for some, working with animals provides the first steps of trust and increased self-esteem.
The rural setting also aims to give them the space needed to grow and look within and become “big-hearted independent thinkers.”
The school believes no pupils should be allowed to fail because of their past experiences and complex histories.
It aims to develop their emotional insight and self-management, promote respect for authority, peer relationships and prepare them for the future.
There is a strong focus on pastoral care, with an ethos of ‘catch’em’ good’ aiming to build self-esteem, trust and “end cycles of shame which previously influenced negative patterns of behaviour.”
It also means targeted one-to-one teaching, or small classrooms where literacy, numeracy and science are taught in a structured outdoor setting. In English, students are encouraged to express themselves in written words, debates and visual media.
In maths, pupils develop an understanding of how its principles relate to everyday life.
However, there are high expectations of manners, morals, effort and appreciation.
These are measures the school hopes will lead the children to move to a mainstream setting, or if they stay, still enjoy success in later life.
In its report, Ofsted praised the headteacher for building a cohesive team with a strong commitment for improving the life chances of the pupils.
Inspectors noted the pupils were making “good progress” thanks to “effective teaching and a curriculum relevent to their needs.”
Leaders had a detailed knowledge of pupils’ learning and progress, providing planning that is personalised and well matched to children’s needs.
The outdoor and offsite learning “ensures that pupils are motivated to engage with their learning.”
Relationships are also strong, staff actively promote school values, and there are clear expectations of pupils. Behaviour was also good because staff apply consistently agreed behaviour management strategies, Ofsted also added.
Cate said: “Our young people are not meeting the National minimum average, but all of them are now making progress and more importantly are enjoying education.
“They are able to access a curriculum that engages them and removes the barriers that they have previously experienced in education, in a safe environment.”
Cate added the Ofsted report was “very fair.” The school was “really pleased” with it and is following Ofsted’s recommendations.
“We have a complex cohort of children. It’s nice to be recognised by Ofsted. We want to get known. We want the local community to know that we are here.”