Harley is eleven and a half years old and has a message for any children who may be joining Arc Oakbridge:
“You will enjoy the school. It’s great. You’ll have loads of fun.”
His message is the more powerful since Harley was unhappy at his old school. With a diagnosis of autism, Harley has different needs from some other children, and he found himself isolated, when his current teachers agree he’s a hugely friendly, chatty and kind child. He often felt challenged about his behaviour when he needed support and understanding to manage his emotions and behaviour more skilfully. He says:
“My old school was horrible…the teachers were horrible and the kids were horrible.”
Arc Oakbridge specialises in supporting, providing therapeutic care, and opening doors to educational achievement for children like Harley.
As Deputy Head Jilly McCarrick says:
“It’s about instilling that love of learning again. For many of our children school was an unhappy place and being ‘different’ felt like being ‘bad’. Here we consider a social model of disability. There’s nothing wrong with the children here at all: but society can disenable them. So we remove barriers to learning and create an environment that enables them to learn so that they can take their place in society.
“The work staff do here changes whole families, and parents will say, ‘I’ve got my child back’.”
Small class sizes, consistency in the structure of the day and week and clear communication of what is coming next and delivering a rich and diverse experience, including Friday Team Challenge, trips, swimming are a key part of the Oakbridge philosophy, led by Headteacher Phil Petch.
Being ambitious for the children and staffing exclusively with teachers who have chosen and specialise in working with children in autism is also important.
At Oakbridge all staff have been trained in the Thrive Approach and the school has two qualified Thrive Practitioners. The Thrive Approach is based on attachment theory, research in neuroscience and child development theory and aims to achieve the vision of a world in which children’s social and emotional needs are better understood and met. When interacting with pupils staff use the PLACE model which encourages them to be:
The impact on Harvey has been rewarding for all of those who worked with him. He says:
“I feel safe, all the other kids are just like me and they can relate to me.”
At playtimes Harley can be seen chatting with other boys, including those outside of his small class group. At lunchtime, he’s keen to sit with his friends and talk about his career aspirations. Harley is currently considering becoming a children’s entertainer…a dream that shows how far his social skills and confidence have grown during his seven months at Arc Oakbridge. He says:
“All of the teachers are amazing and all of the kids are amazing. I’ve been on four trips so far…I’ve been rock climbing, to Legoland Discovery Centre and I’m going to the Buddhist Temple next because we’re learning about the Buddha. I have a best friend but I’m friends with everyone.”