Strategic governance of education in Wales is divided into four regional consortia charged with driving and supporting school improvement. ERW (Education through Regional Working) is the working alliance of six local authorities in South West and Mid Wales, including Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Powys, Ceredigion, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot. It is the largest region geographically, covering 12,000km2, with great diversity including a wide spectrum of affluence and deprivation across both urban and rural localities, and a mix of Welsh-speaking, English-speaking and bilingual areas. It includes some areas, such as Port Talbot, where the steel works which are so crucial to the local economy are under threat, where the commissioner recognises that the population lives with uncertainties that undoubtedly risk raising stress to toxic levels.
In line with the trend across the UK as a whole, looked after children in Wales perform significantly less well than others. ERW's website identifies the needs of looked after children in this way:
The difficulties that many of these children face in schools often stem from their early experiences. We know that most children who enter the care system have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect and loss. We also know that many of these children will not have had the opportunity to develop a secure attachment to their main caregiver. Research has shown that these children have a number of difficulties including: regulating their emotions; 'attuning' with others; moral reasoning, and trusting adults. Research has also shown that these children appear to have difficulty in developing effective executive functioning skills which are the range of key skills that enable children to effectively engage in classroom learning. Classroom strategies which are relevant for securely attached children will often not be effective for those with insecure attachments. These learners respond best to a relationship-based and trauma-informed approach to every aspect of their school life.
It is the Welsh government which provides the Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG) to improve outcomes for learners eligible for free school meals and children who are looked after by the local authority (LAC). In January 2015, it advised regional consortia to focus the LAC element of PDG on developments aimed at ensuring that looked after, and previously looked after, children, received consistent and continuing support to achieve their educational potential, with a particular emphasis on schools understanding the emotional challenges to learning faced by this vulnerable cohort of children.
LACE (Looked After Children in Education) Coordinators in the LAs that make up the ERW region had identified a number of significant training needs among their school staff:
- There was a wide variability in the levels of knowledge and understanding of attachment and trauma that they came across among the staff they were supporting.
- Staff would often not understand why a traditional behaviourist approach was not working and why children were not responding to the standard rewards and sanctions model.
- It was quite common for staff to feel unprepared and ill-equipped to meet the needs of the many looked after children from across England and Wales who had been found placements with adoptive parents and foster carers across the region. (In one small rural primary school no fewer than eight of the 45 children on roll were adopted).
In the summer of 2015, experienced Carmarthenshire LACE Coordinator Cressy Morgan was appointed on secondment to a regional role in ERW using the LAC element of the PDG grant to commission interventions to improve educational outcomes for looked after children. Having attended a conference at Bath Spa University where the findings were shared of research into the effectiveness of projects to promote attachment awareness among school staff, she was convinced that a similar approach in the ERW region would be the best way to improve outcomes for looked after children. Other LACE Coordinators agreed, and full support was given by the Managing Director and Executive Board of ERW, who were enthusiastic about the LAC element of the PDG being used in a way that they recognised could benefit all children.
The commissioner was keen that the knowledge and understanding to be disseminated around attachment and trauma needed to be consistent. In order to quality-assure training provision and to ensure the delivery of consistent messages around attachment and trauma, she was keen that individual areas and schools were not left to organise their own small pockets of training. A provider was required with the capacity to deliver high-quality training across the whole geographical region. Her own previous experience and recommendations from other commissioners led her to KCA.
With limited funding only to March 2017, she worked with KCA to co-create a high-impact, low-cost intervention. This process resulted in a plan for a three-phase partnership project, including an 'exit strategy' with front-loaded support from KCA at the beginning, reducing over time as LACE Coordinators and other local partners, including Educational Psychology teams and 'champions' from 'beacon' schools, would step up to spread and sustain the approach thereafter. She was impressed by how KCA's Connected data management system could facilitate the collation and analysis of feedback from learners and provide evidence of the effectiveness of the training commissioned.
In light of presentations she had seen at the Bath Spa conference she was keen to adopt a very similar model to that used by some of the Virtual School Heads in England, such as Derbyshire and Stoke, who had also worked with KCA. However, she appreciated the way KCA supported her with useful suggestions for tailoring provision to the specific context and need in the ERW region.
The commissioner recognised the importance of engaging senior leaders in the schools involved in order to ensure a whole-school approach. She and other LACE coordinators were all too familiar with situations in which learning or behaviour support staff might attend attachment awareness training only to feel that their school's culture was not supportive of the changes in practice that were recommended. To this end, ERW were keen to make it a requirement of schools receiving funded training that headteachers and/or other appropriate senior leaders were fully engaged.
As it turned out, the vast majority of headteachers and schools approached with the offer of funded training were very receptive to the offer at senior leadership level, with many 'crying out for it' according to the commissioner.
What was also clear was that different schools had different motivations for wanting their school to become more attachment-aware: for some it was around behaviour management, while others sought to improve pupil wellbeing, and others aimed at raising attainment levels either of looked after children or of a broader spectrum of children.
The whole project began with the identification of nine schools to take part in the first pilot phase of the project, including a geographical spread of four primaries, four secondaries and one special school, with the intention that they would go on to be 'beacon' schools, cascading their new knowledge, understanding and skills to other schools in the region through champions from among their staff teams. Representatives from each of these schools were gathered at a launch event in November 2015. Training for the whole staff team at each of these nine settings was scheduled for the period January to April 2016 with the aim of supporting staff to develop more attachment-aware and trauma-informed practice.
A key element of the training content was to help school staff form a new narrative around behaviour, moving away from the concept of managing behaviour and towards a more relational approach based on responsiveness to the emotions that give rise to it, providing co-regulation that will help children to self-regulate and thus access learning.
It is also then important for schools staff to realise that as co-regulating adults this is demanding work which requires steps to be taken to ensure that there is sufficient staff resilience in the school in order to be able to deal with daily challenges in an effective and 'mindful' way. This in turn will increase the school staff capacity and create greater resilience in the network.
As with all KCA training, a 'Connected Learning' approach was taken, with face-to-face training from knowledgeable, experienced and inspiring associates, supported by comprehensive training packs and all participants encouraged to take up the opportunity of completing a relevant free follow-up e-learning course ('Understanding Trauma' or 'Attachment & Brain Development'), involving reflective practice exercises, in order to further embed the new knowledge and understanding into their daily work. In addition they were given access to a host of resources, articles, practice tools and weblinks to recommended reading.
It had always been intended that the first phase of the project could be replicated and scaled up in future so that the second phase would take the approach out to a far larger number of schools in the region.
However, the original plan to quickly reduce KCA input and to rely on local schools and stakeholders to cascade the training plan was changed for a number of reasons:
- given the time and funding constraints of the project, it was decided that it would take too long for schools to be technically ready to provide 'expert' support
- the size of the ERW region and the distances involved meant that effective regional school-to-school support would be impractical at this stage
- the commissioner also recognised that KCA trainers provided the kind of high quality and 'wow factor' that was able to get key decision makers and leaders in schools on board.
The solution, co-created between KCA and ERW, was to organise a series of three large 'hub' training courses, split over two days. Following a request for expressions of interest, headteachers were asked to select four members of staff to attend the two days of training.
To ensure a genuine commitment and impact on school culture, it was expected that primary headteachers would attend and, for secondary schools, that a member of senior leadership would attend. There was also a requirement that participants would complete a short online e-learning course for each training day, that information would be cascaded to colleagues back in their settings, and that a 'Priority Action Plan' would be completed for incorporating the training into school development. This would be further supported with follow-up from LACE coordinators, Educational Psychology teams and other local stakeholders.
The training inputs that took place in phase 2 were:
- March 2016: 3 x full days. Attachment awareness in schools: Supporting learning and promoting resilience
- May 2016: 3 x full days. Emotion Coaching: Building trust and respectful relationships with children and young people
Emotion Coaching provides strategies for adults to support children and young people to manage their own behaviour by helping them to understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur, and how to handle them.
During phase 2, around 200 staff from 48 different schools were trained.
After the success of phase 2, the training inputs for phase 3 were:
- Nov 2016: 3 x full days. Attachment awareness in schools.
- Jan 2017: 3 x full days. Emotion Coaching.
A further development in phase 3 was that a working group from phase 1 schools had worked together to create an adapted version of the presentation to provide consistent cascading of information by trained staff back to wider staff teams within their settings.
In phase 3, around 200 staff from 70 different schools were trained.
So far, within the ERW region as part of this project, at least 1,186 staff from 127 schools have been trained. One initial objective had been for every school with a looked after child to access training, and this has been 'pretty much achieved'.
With training inputs only recently completed, it is too early to be able to see a significant impact on data relating to hard outcomes such as attendance, exclusion rates and attainment levels. However, the commissioner says there is plenty of evidence of the less quantifiable soft outcomes that can nonetheless make such a difference to the experience of children and young people, and she is confident that the impact of this will soon be visible in data around measurable outcomes.
The ERW website states that 'An understanding of the positive impact this model of working can have on all learners is growing rapidly across schools in ERW.' The commissioner says that 'People are talking about this training and these concepts across the whole region.'
This is evident, she adds, in the schools she visits where she witnesses 'cultural change and a different feel for children'. Change can be seen, for example, in the wording of some restorative practice being used in schools, or the adoption of a system whereby teachers can send a message to senior leadership containing a stress code-word when they are beginning to feel overwhelmed. Managing their own stress levels effectively in this way enables staff to avoid that stress rising to toxic levels or being passed on to children, thus helping to build community resilience.
There is some variation in the extent to which attachment-aware practice has become embedded in schools where staff have been trained. Significant changes in culture and practice have generally been more prevalent in the phase 1 schools where all staff attended training. Among these first nine schools those who were able to dedicate a full inset day to the training have seen a greater level of staff engagement, understanding and practice development than those where the training had to be split across two shorter twilight sessions. Broadly speaking, the approach has been embraced with the highest degree of enthusiasm and commitment among primary schools.
The phase 1 special school, which caters for children with a wide range of needs including those with profound and multiple learning difficulties, has been totally committed to embedding the training in their practice. The school has reported a very significant reduction in staff sickness, especially in relation to a team supporting a child whose needs presented great challenges. They have also seen a significant decline in the need for physical intervention to be used since the introduction of more attachment-aware practices.
Educational Psychology teams in some local authority areas within ERW have been very engaged and supportive of the project. One EP has built some key messages from KCA's training into their own ELSA (Emotional Literacy Support Assistant) training programme.
KCA welcomed the translation of some of the training resources into the Welsh language to improve the accessibility of the messages to all staff, children and families in some areas.
Feedback from participants has been very positive. From a sample of over 700 respondents who completed before and after questionnaires around their training:
- 99% would recommend the training to others.
- 99% said the knowledge/understanding gained would be useful in their work.
- 98% said the learning objectives were fully or mostly met
- When asked how they would rate their level of understanding of the subject matter, the proportion of those who would rate it as good or excellent rose from 39% prior to training to 88% afterwards.
- 95% said after the training that they would feel confident in explaining the content to others.
- While prior to training only 74% stated that they applied their knowledge of the subject matter in their work, afterwards, this figure rose to 97%, with the most significant increases in the proportion of those who felt they would apply their knowledge on a constant or daily basis.
The quotes from participants captured through KCA's Connected online data management system are also indicative of the positive impact of the training and its influence on practice:
'As a Head of Year, I deal with issues relating to attachment frequently. This course has given me a new insight in how to help these pupils reach their potential.'
17 March 2016
'I will use some of the strategies in my daily teaching as they will benefit all learners as well as children with attachment issues.'
4 April 2016
'As well as ensuring I will continually be seeking to make young people feel safe I will be able to refer to "attachment seeking" when staff tell me a young person is attention seeking.'
Kirsty Roper, 24 March 2016
'[The training has been instrumental in] helping to establish a culture at school that recognises the impact of trauma on children and seeks to identify and support children appropriately through effective systems and caring staff.'
7 November 2016
When asked how she found the process of 'co-creating' training solutions with KCA to meet the need in the ERW region, the commissioner replied:
'KCA were very helpful in working with us to find a training package that would meet our needs. I was glad that I was not presented with a set programme and that I didn't feel hidebound by a fixed offer. It was flexible. When we realised that there were some practical difficulties in implementing our initial plan around beacon schools, KCA were flexible in providing alternative delivery plans.'
The commissioner also feels that the budget spent on the project in the 18 months from September 2015 to March 2017 represents very good value for money. At 1.7% of the looked after children element of the PDG grant for ERW, she sees it as the kind of high-impact, low-cost intervention advocated in the Sutton Trust / EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit.
The approach has already gained further momentum over and above the regional ERW project, with a number of the individual local authorities that make up the region also commissioning their own Attachment Awareness and Emotion Coaching hub training events, which have provided training for around 1,200 additional school staff. Beyond the ERW region, KCA have also now been booked to deliver training events by other Welsh consortia.
The commissioner feels that the coming year will be very much about continuing the process of embedding and sustaining the approach in the settings who have received training, with follow-up from LACE coordinators and Educational Psychology teams, and through building on school-to-school collaboration and support.
While the original plan to make use of champions to cascade the whole approach to others may have proved too great a burden to expect beacon schools to bear, there are indications from schools that they would be happy to share their more particular individual strengths in a specific area in relation to attachment awareness, for example, in website development, pastoral support, curriculum development, policy, or outdoor provision.
Reliance on KCA's training input is being reduced. Further KCA training days are likely to be commissioned in the ERW region in the coming year, with the onus on clusters of schools within each local authority area to take commissioning responsibility. LACE Coordinators will continue to provide some funding input and follow-up support based on their experience and expertise. In future, the training will also be offered via the 'Menu of Support' provided to schools by their Challenge Advisors. It is no longer on the periphery and is seen very much as part of mainstream school improvement business.
In March 2017 ERW will be the first of the Welsh consortia to hold a regional conference presenting the various interventions funded through the looked after children element of the PDG, which are held together by the golden thread of attachment and trauma awareness.