Whether it’s been taking children with autism on their first residential trip or helping them fall in love with learning, there’s been a more than a few career highlights for multi-award winning Melanie Whitfield, the Head Teacher of Brookways School. We caught up with Melanie as she prepares to retire from her role – and looks to her future still within Kedleston Group.
“I’ve been so very lucky that there’s been so many career highlights since I joined Kedleston five years ago, and throughout my entire 30 year teaching career. I initially joined to set up and launch the Group’s first ever autism-specific provision, the ARC at Leaways School in London.
“We created a provision which was designed to meet the needs of children with autism – from the separate entrance through to muted colours and lighting, a bespoke curriculum and an entirely different approach to encouraging children to come to school, stay in school and help them gain the confidence and skills to move into the main part of the school to learn alongside their peers.
“We created a bespoke environment, and a bespoke team, and we saw some huge successes. For example, a child joined us, after careful outreach work, after spending more than two years at home without attending school. He thrived and did so well, it was a pleasure to see – he went on to have 100% attendance, undertake qualifications and enjoy residential trips with his friends. And he wasn’t only one – we had so many young people do so well.
“I was thrilled to be part of the team that took Leaways to Outstanding with Ofsted, and even more thrilled to be part of the team that then created Brookways, Kedleston’s first stand-alone autism-specific school. Creating it from the ground up was a privilege.
“Our ethos is all around family. The transformation of the lives of the children, and their families, is the real highpoint for me. Often they have been out of school or have had learning experiences which were really negative. They’ve often been taught alone and haven’t had friends. Their families have missed out on assemblies, on concerts and performances, and on so many of those little things which make a child’s school journey so special. They find all of that at Brookways, and that makes me really proud.
“The children tell us that they enjoy coming to school at Brookways, and their parents tells us the same – even saying that we have transformed their child’s life.
“When a child finds a place they belong and where they can be themselves, it’s wonderful. They’re not frightened or angry any more. They can make friends, be part of a team and learn to love learning. Some tell us they have been invited to birthday parties for the very first time. For us, it’s helping them to gaining the skills they need to “live life well” no matter how long it may take, or how many small steps have to be taken.
“Just some of the lovely things I’ll take with me and remember are a young person who arrived as a selective mute – they are now really blossoming, and very chatty! Taking the children on their first ever residential trip to Kingswood was amazing – for many of them it was the first time they had been away from home – and they all did so well. We’ve taken a group of children across London to see the Marvel exhibition and we’ve had whole school trips to the seaside – each has been a triumph! These may sound like small, everyday things, but for our children, they are major life events, often the first time they have been able to participate in trips and events like that. And they did so well with each of these.
“I’ve been struck too by the resilience of our young people. While out on a school trip in London they found themselves close to a fairly major police incident which could have been really upsetting for them because of their challenges – in fact, enough to make any mainstream class of children tip over into meltdown.
“However, with staff supporting them, they chose to continue with their trip to the Houses of Parliament and had a marvellous day! I was so unbelievably proud of them, and the team.
“For us it’s not just about academic successes, although we have those too. It’s about helping the children achieve self-confidence, belief in their abilities and truly positive social outcomes too. Creating positive memories, that’s what we want to do.
“From an academic perspective, the vast majority of our students are in KS2 and KS3, so we have only had two students sit exams to date. But both of these students passed their maths and English Functional Skills Level One exams - we are really proud of such academic success and I know there will be many more fantastic results in the years to come.
“Brookways is a family community where everyone is accepted and understood, where mistakes are allowed and worked through in a safe place, not punished. We have just two rules; Work Hard and Be Kind – and that has certainly been the case both for the children and the team!
“I will miss both as I retire from Brookways, but I’m thrilled to be taking a part-time role within Kedleston, where I’ll be the Quality Improvement Lead for autism education, so I will still be able to stay in touch, just not every day.
“The high point for me during my time at Brookways was when Ofsted, just six months after we opened, graded the school as Good with Outstanding features. It seemed such a great validation of the great efforts the children, their families and the staff team had put in.
“But I think the thing I will miss the most is our school song, which takes inspiration from “The Wombles” and says: “Sometimes we wobble but we always know we can come back and put it all right’ and the school’s mantra: ‘trying to be the best me I can be, a positive future is waiting for me.’ And I know that for our children, that’s absolutely the case.”