“We allow children with SEN to explore who they are and what they can do. The result is that the child flourishes”

– Headmaster Claeys

You might not have heard of Bredon school. I hadn’t until a couple of years ago when I interviewed Aatif Hassan, the chairman of Cavendish Education, the group which owns Bredon. He told me about this fabulous school in Gloucestershire for SEN children, children with specific learning needs that has an award-winning shooting team. They give children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and high-functioning autism, guns.

Yes, guns. We’re not talking Rambo here, rather clay-pigeon shooting. But still, it’s quite a thing isn’t it? I have never forgotten how Hassan’s eyes lit up as he told me about the discipline, focus and sense of self-worth Bredon students have gained from shooting. It was one of those anecdotes that lodges in one’s mind, the brilliant audacity of it…

“That’s Bredon for you,” says Koen Claeys, Bredon’s Belgian headmaster, when I relay this story.  “It doesn’t matter your situation – we will find something for you,” he says. To illustrate this point he tells me about a new pupil, a 14-year-old who has recently arrived at the school. This child suffered paralysis down one side of his body following an operation to remove a brain tumour. He has since taken up shooting with one arm at Bredon and excelled in a school competition just before Claeys and I talk.

“We are quite unique,” says Claeys. “A boarding school with 80 acres of grounds and a working farm. We give SEN children the chance to work and explore the outdoors – a lot of them find it hard to sit still. There’s an awful lot they can get their hands on here.”

Claeys believes Bredon is all about second chances. “We see children here who might have been told they are dumb or stupid in previous settings. They might have stopped going to school, their self-esteem is low, sometimes it has affected their mental health,” he says. “We unpick what the child needs help with and then we give them that help. Not only do we ensure they get that support but we allow that child to explore who they are and what they can do. The result is that the child flourishes.” And flourishing they are indeed. Bredon is currently lousy with gold stars from those that matter. It received ‘Excellent’ across the board from the Independent Schools Inspectorate last October and according to Government figures, published in January this year,  it ranked number one out of more than 4,000 schools and colleges in England for ‘value-added’ for students aged 16 to 18 years.

Claeys is cock-a-hoop with this accolade. “This is a remarkable achievement and recognises the high quality of our specialist teaching and learning approach,” he says. “Because it’s not about how many A* you have, it’s about progress. It’s not difficult being a top selective school and then saying, ‘Look at our amazing A* rate.’ But to show progress, that’s what matters to me.”

The school, near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, currently has 220 pupils from Year 3 to Year 13. There are just under 30 students in the Junior School, and 40-45 in the Sixth Form. Most of the students at the school will have one or two “disses” as Claeys calls them – and/or high-functioning autism and possibly ADHD. The school does not accept children with emotional and behavioural problems. But “we have a lot of children who have not been diagnosed with anything,” says Claeys, “we will often carry out our own diagnosis, we have very experienced staff”.

Academically, the school isn’t “linear”, says Claeys. By this he means that a student might be sitting their Art A-Level while receiving extra tutoring in English and re-sitting their English GCSE exam for the fourth or fifth time to get the all important Grade 4 (old style C). “We won’t stop the students from picking subjects they excel in – we will support  them and also give them extra lessons to get those all important pass grades in the core subjects that they need,” he says. “But we want to be sure they leave school with something amazing.” A typical Bredon child – “if such a thing exists”, says Claeys – might do say 5 GCSEs, plus 3 BTECS or 1 or 2 A-Levels plus 1 or 2 BTECS.

“We have staff here who can pick the right course for every student and support them during that process,” says Claeys.

The staff at Bredon are a highly trained, highly qualified bunch. All teaching staff have a minimum of Level 3 SpLD qualifications from the British Dyslexic Association but SLS staff (Specialist Learning Support) have a Level 5. Four of the staff have Level 7 qualifications “which allows them to read EdPsych reports at a glance,” says Claeys. The children come from all over the country; approximately 80 students are boarders, with 50 coming from the UK and 25 are international.  Most are privately funded places but there are also 30% of pupils who receive local authority funding from more than 20 different local authorities. But one of the bonuses of its fee-paying status is the school is resource rich. “We part fund teacher training,” says Claeys. “If a member of my staff approaches me and says they want to gain a new qualification or level, I say: ‘Great, let me find the money.’”

What really sets the school apart though is the way it teaches children with SEN. Claeys explains: “When I arrived two and a half years ago I couldn’t get my head round why children were being taught in a class together – say in a geography lesson – and then some of the children would leave that lesson and be taught exactly the same thing again but in a specialist setting.”  Now the whole class is taught in a SEN-friendly way. “We are moving the specialism away from the individual to the classroom,” says Claey. “The teacher should have the passion and the training in the first place to engage the whole class.”

Kelly Weston, a science teacher and Lead SEN coordinator says: “As teachers we play to their strengths.” So class sizes are small, typically 8-12 pupils. Teaching is dyslexia-friendly. Language is kept simple, instructions are clear and activities “will be chunked into set times – some of our young people have difficulty concentrating so each lesson is carefully divided up”, she says.

In the art studio

In addition to this, “All our teachers work in a multi-sensory way rather than just in the SLS support (withdrawal lessons)”, says Weston.

Lessons will typically include visual or kinaesthetic activities. For example, during a science revision lesson “we might use numbered Jenga blocks, so as the students with SEN play they are going over the numbers and topics,” explains Weston. A kinaesthetic activity is a ‘doing’ lesson. If Weston was teaching evaporation and the conditions that affect evaporation – “you might make washing lines and hang scraps of damp materials on them in different environments – e.g hot and dry, damp and moist, cold etc – to actually see what’s happening rather than just reading about it in a text book.”

Pupils who need extra support will still have extra SLS lessons. Here, too, the teachers follow a multi-sensory ethos. When learning times tables, for example, the teacher might touch the child’s finger with a pen – a different finger each time, so the child has that ping of sensory recognition as well as the mental act of thinking – thus helping them to retain the information. The high level of support extends beyond the classroom, too, with a well developed pastoral-care system. Each student has a personal tutor who checks in with them twice a day – “after all, we are dealing with teenagers here,” says Weston.

Each pupil at Bredon has a Pupil Passport, which isn’t unusual in a SEN setting, but at Bredon, this condensed, one-page profile is created in conjunction with the young person. Anyone with a child with SEN will know how much paperwork it involves. “The Pupil Passport is a quick and easy one-stop-shop for staff which the pupils help to write, setting out, for example, ‘This is what I struggle with, this is what I’m good at etc.’” explains Weston. Weston talks about a “lovely Bredon bubble”. “Every individual is nurtured and encouraged here,” she says. And accordingly, the pupils are very accepting of each other. “One of the nicest things that the ISI said was that differences are celebrated by our pupils. That’s really important,” she says.

“The outdoors is a big part of life at Bredon, be it farming, climbing or canoeing”

Claeys believes the school is in a good place. But like many ambitious heads, he wants to do more. “In next two and a half years I want to see us having more impact on SEN student learning. I would love that journey to continue,” he says. “So far Claeys has changed the lesson structures and introduced Google platform to the school, it really helps students with organisation, not having paperwork,” he says – now he wants “to make more of our outdoor education”. The outdoors is a big part of life at Bredon whether it’s farming or climbing, shooting or canoeing, a fact recognised by the ISI when it noted that this emphasis  “contributes strongly to pupils’ physical and mental health”.

Claeys’s aim is to see if pupils can gain proper qualifications in outdoor activities such as farming and recreational sports. For example, with climbing “rather than students just doing it here, could they get qualified, leave and become climbing instructors?” he says. To say that there is a ‘can-do’ attitude at Bredon is a little like noting the Pope is a good Catholic. What’s more, all the staff I speak to have bought into its philosophy wholesale and all press upon me how special the school is.

The recent ISI report noted that the students said their confidence levels had shot up at Bredon. For Claeys it is very simple. “You need confidence to achieve, a child who thinks he can do something, will do it.” he says. “We give them a chance to shine again.”

Headmaster Koen Claeys

To learn more about Bredon School, click here.