Moving Mountains

I remember the moment when Sarah’s file landed on my desk. It was a tragic history of neglect, failed placements and exclusions. Sarah, despite being in Year 9, was barely able to read. Numerous cancelled appointments at CAMHS had led to her case being closed, re-opened and then closed again. 

There had been a lot of meetings about Sarah. Each meeting appeared to result in another evidence-based intervention and a new set of strategies for staff. None of them had made a difference.

As a young deputy-SENCO I read through the complex web of advice from external agencies, much of which I didn’t understand. I deciphered the most recent strategies from the paperwork and disseminated these to staff, but in truth I was not confident in my ability as a class teacher to act on the very strategies that I was suggesting. They had become wrapped up in increasingly complicated language and seemed far removed from the realities of classroom teaching.

As a school, we struggled to ‘manage’ Sarah over the next year. There were more meetings, more strategies, another round of interventions and more input from the SEN department. Her time spent in class with her teachers reduced further and we began to consider a more specialist setting. 

We decided that we would take Sarah on an activity week in Wales, which had been designed for a small group of pupils that were finding school difficult. We also invited some of the Sixth Form, including the Head Boy and Head Girl who we felt would be a good influence on the group.

On the second day, we were provided with a guide to climb Cadair Idris Mountain. We found out later that our original guide had fallen ill, so we had been provided with an inexperienced guide who had not worked with a school party before. Halfway up the mountain, the weather changed considerably for the worse and our guide made the mistake of deciding to keep climbing rather than turn back.

What followed has stayed with me as a teacher forever. A blizzard surrounded us; punishing sleet and snow with gale force winds made the journey across the Ridge treacherous. Our guide signalled his intention that we make for a stone shelter towards the top of Cadair Idris, but our pupils were now finding the climb overwhelming and I tried to suppress the sensation of panic I felt at the situation we found ourselves in.

Yet amongst the confusion and despair one pupil was taking it all in her stride. As I struggled to motivate pupils through the worsening conditions, Sarah calmly supported, cajoled and convinced others to keep going. It remains the most extraordinary example of resilience and determination in a child that I have ever seen. I will never forget the image of Sarah, her arm around our Head Boy, encouraging him to keep going. There is no doubt in my mind that without Sarah’s help that day, I would not have got all of the pupils to the shelter safely.

Sarah still had difficulties at school, but it was our experience on that day up a mountain that was the turning point for her. The perception of Sarah amongst her peers changed almost immediately, as a result of the relationships she had built with pupils on that trip. The group would sit together in the lunch hall for many months after the climb – in some ways possibly one of the most unusual combinations of children you are likely to see. 

As news of Sarah’s contribution spread amongst the staff, perceptions changed also. We delivered a number of assemblies together on our experience and what we had learnt about ourselves on the way. Sarah returned as a helper on future trips.

Sarah stayed on at school through to Year 11 and went on to complete a successful placement at college. In the end, the reasons behind Sarah’s success were not a series of complex strategies and interventions that removed her from her peers. It was not about arranging another round of meetings. It was about giving her our time, building better relationships and providing an opportunity for her to realise her extraordinary gift for motivating others to achieve their very best.

The name of the pupil in this article has been changed to protect anonymity.

David Bartram
London Leadership Strategy Director of SEND
September 2016

Twitter: @DavidBartram_

1st September 2016
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