Interview with Carla Lawes - Mental Health Lead at Alderman Richard Hallam Primary, Leicester

How Worth-it provided support and resources for success!

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Alderman Richard Hallam Primary, Leicester
Alderman Richard Hallam Primary, Leicester

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In 2017, Carla Lawes, the Assistant Head and Mental Health Lead at the Leicester City based Alderman Richard Hallam Primary attended one of Worth-it's training programmes which has since evolved into our Wellbeing Club. Since then, Alderman Richard Hallam have consistently built and embedded their whole school approach to positive mental health and wellbeing. Improving attainment, attendance and behaviour as well as improving staff wellbeing and teacher retention.

Our Managing Director Liz Robson-Kelly caught up with Carla to talk about their journey and to share some advice.

Below is a summary of what they discussed.

First of all Carla, can you tell us a bit more about your school?

So we're the largest Primary School in Leicester with around 860 children running from nursery to Year 6.

Our school community is really diverse. For example, we have 43 different languages being spoken at the school. As well as this, we have a lot of different needs in our area as we're between an affluent area and one not quite as affluent. We have some children who are from working-class backgrounds, but then we also have children from professional families. Our school is a real melting pot!

The work that you've been doing is a great example of positive education. What was it that started you on this journey?

When we started, and I first became the Assistant Head and looked at personal development, it was more focused. We were more looking at those children who had a specific need. It certainly wasn't a whole school ethos.

We wanted to help develop children's resilience to tricky situations. Sometimes that would be in terms of their behaviour and how they interacted with each other. And sometimes it would be in lessons if there was a math problem and they just wanted to give up.

In terms of staff wellbeing, when I very first started at the school, staff workload was a huge issue. Staff felt like a lot of tasks weren't necessary and it was always a bugbear of people. If you can see the impact it has on the kids, then you're more than happy to go the extra mile.

So I think they were probably the main triggers. And then I would definitely say that doing the Worth-it training really kicked it off for me in terms of getting it embedded across the whole curriculum. Making it something for all staff and all children. What I learnt from the training really underpinned it for me and how we wanted to introduce wellbeing into our school. It became much more of a priority for the SLT.

We definitely didn't realise the impact it would have on the whole school. We thought it would make the children happier. We hoped it would make staff happier, we weren't sure that it would work. But it has, it's had a huge impact.

So when we started Children had a specific need, it certainly wasn't a whole school ethos. The Worth-it programme definitely kicked it all off for me in terms of getting mental wellbeing embedded across the whole curriculum, making it something for all staff and all children.

So how did you start?

When we first started, the explicit teaching of wellbeing was very important. We first looked at skills-based teaching but after the Worth-it training we turned it into the character strengths. We called them our 'ingredients for success'. Through staff CPD we started introducing that with both the staff and children.

Now we weave these ingredients into everything that the children do. So whether it's Maths or English, you have your learning objective, you also have the 'ingredient for success' that you're going to use for that lesson.

And that's when it kind of became implicit and part of our day-to-day experience of wellbeing. And now it's embedded across the whole school, in terms of that we use it in our parent's evenings and our reports. That language has become a shared language of the school. And it's completely woven into the fabric of the school and shaped the way the school looks.

And what are some of the most significant things that you have done?

Some things may not seem all that significant but it's all the little bits that you do.

Staff Wellbeing - So things like decorating our staff room to help improve staff wellbeing. The SLT and a few other helpers secretly decorated it one Friday evening so when the staff came in on the Monday it was a nice surprise for them. It became just like a cool living room where people could go and relax. Often when visitors come into school, they go in there and comment on how lovely the staff room is. It's really welcoming and bookshelves and nice things all around. It's all about making staff feel valued and letting them know that we want them to have that space where they feel safe.

Pupil Wellbeing through embedded curriculum teaching - And as I've said, the 'ingredients for success' have been key. No matter what it is, we would have the 'ingredients for success' alongside the learning objective. And I think that had a really big impact because teachers saw how much it helped to boost the children's self-esteem. We have something called the 'expert initiative' for our gifted and talented pupils, so they can be an expert in a lesson. So if it's column addition, they can be a column addition expert, and they can support other children and build those leadership skills. But then what we started to do was, you would have an expert in teamwork or an expert in listening. So some of those children who are low attainers suddenly became the expert. And you could see the impact that them realising that they're an expert had on them.

Involving Parents and Carers - The next step was getting that parent/carer buy-in. We started having praise postcards. Each teacher sends two home a week and they're focused on a spotlight, for example, resilience. So the children nominate each other throughout the week and then each staff member chooses two children in their class who get a postcard. And so then the parents know that I've shown really good resilience for example. And that's amazing. And so it's kind of in bit by bit with the character strengths, that was definitely the first thing.

And then it was the CPD and training on Mental Heath and Wellbeing I delivered with colleagues from the resources I gained through training with you. So one of the things that you shared with us was not just to look at mental health on a single axis, but to look at flourishing and languishing and, and how we all move around it. And sharing that with staff. I think people could see a bit of themselves in that. And they could see times when they've felt like they've been languishing and what they've done and their coping strategies. And so doing that with the children and rolling it out across the school.

Embedded culture of staff wellbeing - I think relationships, prioritising relationships has been a really strong one. Both between staff, between staff and children and between the children. When you're such a big school, you end up in almost pockets where it was like the foundation pocket and the key stage one pocket. And so building the relationships between staff was really important for their wellbeing. So we did a lot of team building activities, which were chaotic and fun. And we made that optional for all staff. A lot of the team building and stress buster things that we do are optional, you can't make wellbeing mandatory.

We kind of have an attitude of sort of throw it all at the wall, see what sticks. We've tried some things that just didn't work for whatever reason. So one of the first things I did for staff wellbeing was a shout out board in the staff room. And that was a catastrophic failure. Because some people were nominating each other all the time. But then other people were getting upset because they weren't getting as many nominations. We tweaked that. And now we have the appreciation station where we do thank you cards. And there's a big bank of thank you cards in the staff room. And you can just grab one and write on them. So it's not so on show for everyone. It's just a personal thing. And when you get one it's a really lovely feeling. We've done something similar with the 'Wispa' initiative. I had to whisper what you've done really well and then you get a Wispa!

I think school mental health and wellbeing is definitely an area that's hugely worth investing in. I think we've seen the impacts on everything, particularly in terms of behaviour, because once you've got amazing behaviour, the children are so, so much more ready to learn that actually, it has a bigger impact on everything you need to improve as a school.

Did you come across any barriers?

In terms of barriers, I think the main one for us is that our school has had a very limited budget for a number of years. So it's taken some creative thinking! We would go to meetings, and people would have these wonderful ideas. But they cost money, and we just couldn't go with it. So we would have to think of either cheap workarounds or free things that we could do instead.

The other big challenge for us was parent and carer engagement. And that's always a challenge for us, we get a good chunk who do engage, and then a bigger chunk that doesn't. And it's normally the ones that you most want to get engaging that are the hardest to reach. So that was a challenge definitely. I basically barricaded a corridor so that they had to come through the downstairs hall and had to see a showcase of our 'ingredients for success'. And it was all fun activities of how they could do it. But they had to walk through and some of them did just walk through but a lot of them because once they were in there, they will find things for the kids to do and they would join in a bit and enjoy it. So creative thinking was very important!

What positive changes have you seen as a result, from 4 years ago to now?

Changes to ethos - I think, since we did the training with yourself, wellbeing and mental health has very much been at the forefront of SLT's agenda it is an important part of our school culture. It's filtered out and is very much a priority of all of us. And I think it's seeing the impacts that it has makes you want to keep it as a priority.

So when we first started doing it, almost mental health stood on its own a little bit. But the more work we've done on it, the more we've embedded it into our curriculum into our lessons, and you start to see the children really change and their attitudes towards school change and improve and behaviour. And you just see this ripple effect of how it touches every single part of school life, which has been really amazing to see. And it's completely intrinsic to the ethos of our school. And you can feel it the moment you enter the school.

We had one OFSTED two years ago where they commented on the character strengths, the ingredients for success, and how well embedded that was in the school.

The shared language, I think, has been really important and having that with, with staff and parents and carers and using it to reframe some of the negatives. One of the things I took away from the Worth-it training was looking at overpaid strengths. For example, when parents/carers are talking about their child being bossy, we reframe it and say "oh, yeah, they are showing really good leadership skills. You're right."

Changes to staff wellbeing - It's definitely had a positive impact on recruitment and retentions of staff. A couple of years ago, a member of staff during her interview said that she'd been to our school on a course. And that it was the feel of the school as she walked around that made her want to join. Plus in the last three years, we've only had three staff leave, whereas before you'd maybe have five or six leave a year. People aren't burning out, and people aren't leaving. We often have a lot of staff join us NQTs and then they just stay with us.

Positive impacts for learning - In terms of the children, their self-esteem and confidence has really grown. And so has their resilience. They are so much more willing to have a go and get things wrong because they know that they're learning through and they're learning through their mistakes.

And this has positively impacted on attendance which has been steadily growing over the past few years. Four years ago, we were at about 95% attendance, but we're now at about 97.2%. So we're working towards that outstanding attendance.

The children's behaviour has drastically improved in the school as well. It's outstanding now, the children are very polite, they're well mannered, they're able to work things out with each other. And we've done sort of work on peer mediation because we're at a point now where the children are able to self regulate and understand their feelings a bit more and therefore cope with it. They know what they're feeling and they're able to reframe that and handle it in a positive way.

And that's been amazing. So behaviour, incidences have dramatically gone down, but also the types of misbehaviour we have tend to just be low-level disruptions. So things like shouting out, they want to say the answer, rather than anything more serious, and that's been really good.

What advice do you have for other schools wanting to integrate wellbeing and resilience into their school?

I think there's always that temptation, particularly with the looming shadow of OFSTED, that your focus must be on attainment. That it must be on the progress of the children and data. And, and I think sometimes that can be a bit of a worry with mental health because it can be hard to make that data-driven and prove what you're doing is working. Like that ethos of our school and the feeling when you come in, it's very hard to turn into quantitative data. But I think it's really important.

So even if you just start with a little bolt-on where you just do a few nice things, you'd start to see the impact of it. But I think it's definitely an area that's hugely worth investing in, I think the impacts that we've seen on everything, particularly I would say in terms of behaviour, because once you've got amazing behaviour, the children are so, so much more ready to learn that actually, it has a bigger impact on everything you need to improve as a school.

So whether you need to improve attendance or behaviour or attainment, having effective wellbeing helps with all of that. Putting it at the forefront of what you do is is going to be absolutely huge. It has a really wide-reaching impact. It leaves you with happier staff. And having happier staff means that it's a more positive place to work, and you will feel happier about going into work.

And I think Worth-it has been absolutely fantastic. So that that first training I did, we had quite regular sessions, and I was learning things I didn't know about before, like positive psychology and the broaden and build theory and things like that. When you start to test things out in school you really see people respond to it. And it just has such a huge impact. And so I would definitely say to anyone who's thinking about doing it, really go for it, because it does have such a huge impact and you won't regret it.

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