Inclusive model ‘giving students a real future’

It’s a scene akin to any classroom across the Mansfield and Ashfield District as pupils sit poring over co-ordinates during a Monday morning maths lesson.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 21st January 2014, 2:58 pm
Science teacher Marc Hughes helps Oakdale pupils during a lesson.

Considering it’s a subject that traditionally provokes groans, the youngsters are engaged and their teacher getting full attention.

The only clue that this might be something slightly out of the ordinary is the size of the class, with just three in it, rather than the usual number of around 30.

But this is the way the management at the Oakdale Learning Centre – a referral unit that takes in the majority of pupils temporarily or permanently excluded from the area’s mainstream schools – has come to appreciate is the best way to be.

Pupils play basketball in the sports hall at Oakdale.

In the past, when the facility was based on Debdale Lane, it was accused by critics of being too far removed from the real world and lacking the structure to help children who had encountered difficulties get back on track.

Since relocation to a purpose-built venue on Westfield Lane in spring 2007, however, there’s been an increasing emphasis on mirroring national curriculum provision as closely as possible, with the aim of reintegrating attendees back into mainstream schools.

The centre is also supporting local schools in trying to avoid permanent exclusions for locality children.

And it certainly seems to be working. A November Ofsted inspection rated Oakdale as ‘good’ overall and ‘outstanding’ in behaviour and safety of pupils and leadership and management.

Penny Camidge, who will be teacher in charge from April, and Beverley Kirk, current assistant headteacher.

In the eyes of Penny Camidge – currently out of school lead, but teacher in charge from April – it’s called a learning centre for a good reason.

“Oakdale is a school in every sense of the word. The fact that we successfully reintegrate a good proportion of our pupils is a reflection of positive change,” she said.

“There are consistent rules and expectations, a timetable like a mainstream school and specialists who have longed worked in this arena, along with teachers brought in with mainstream experience. It’s gelled and it’s worked.

“We were absolutely delighted with our Ofsted because, historically, many learning centres have been criticised by the public at large, and schools. For the first time we have credence.”

The switch to a more inclusive approach has been aided by a new partnership between Oakdale and the 16 mainstream schools from which its pupils are drawn.

An eight-strong management board includes representatives from the three areas that make up the Oakdale roll - Mansfield, North Ashfield and Shenk (Selston, Holgate, Eastwood, National and Kimberley).

That is particularly important given that, from 2015, schools will retain a greater degree of responsibility for excluded pupils.

Ms Camidge added: “For the first time we have those partners sitting around a table with us looking at what is the best model to meet the needs of local schools and pupils.

“It’s really exciting for the future. The system emerging now will serve both children and schools better.”

Ms Camidge’s appraisal is echoed by assistant head teacher Beverley Kirk, who has overseen much of the change for the better.

She is proud of the way her staff have risen to the challenge and presented a united front during her four-year tenure.

“We couldn’t have got to the position we have without a fantastic group of staff,” said Ms Kirk. “It’s the best team that I’ve ever worked with who always pull together and support each other. I am delighted with what we have achieved at Oakdale.

“Rather than waiting for the children to be permanently excluded, we’re trying to get in early and prevent that scenario because no-one wants that – pupils or schools.

“We are downsizing from April 2014 and money is now being devolved to the schools themselves to work with the children that are particularly challenging, rather than to go for the last resort of permanent exclusion.

“Ideally those who attend Oakdale, will be short stay pupils, perhaps here for half a term – often working on social and emotional issues.”

When the new Oakdale was built there was plenty of opposition from local residents, but such fears have been largely dispelled and now there is an active drive to interact with the community.

Among the activities organised at the centre have been summer fêtes and neighbourhood watch meetings, while pupils have also helped at a local old people’s home.

Oakdale also regularly hosts charity fundraising activities, with Comic Relief, Jeans for Genes and the Red Cross Shoe Box Appeal among those to benefit.

Ms Kirk added: “Many of the children that come here just need some help and support to get back on track.

“Some have diagnosed special needs and long-term this is not the ideal place for them – they may need specialist alternative provision - but it allows us to work out what is the best fit. Oakdale is certainly not intended to be a provision for long term complex pupils.’

Beyond the senior leadership, there is similar acknowledgement that things are moving in the right direction.

Teaching assistant Donna Overton added: “In mainstream school it can often be difficult to liaise with parents due to the sheer numbers of pupils, but we can keep in touch daily to let them know how their children are getting on.

“It’s nice to see the kids moving on and to see a plan for them. Every day’s a challenge, but it’s about overcoming them.”

But the last word goes to the pupils themselves, who clearly believe the Oakdale environment is ideal.

Josh, who has 100 per cent attendance since arriving in November, said: “I like being here. There’s less people than in normal school and I get a lot of help from the teachers.”

And Taylor, who came just before Christmas, added: “We still do English, maths and science, but in the afternoons we get to do swimming and bike projects, which are great fun.”

It would seem it’s not just the maths lessons that are adding up at Oakdale these days.