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Consilium Evolve school’s headteacher Robert Bell and his staff are making a real difference to improve the mental wellbeing of school refusers who’ve dropped out of mainstream education in the city and are now being given a second chance to fulfil their potential.

The alternative provision school, located on Thornholme Road, currently caters for 48 children who’ve been referred into their care after feeling in a position where they were unable to attend their mainstream secondary schools due to issues with their emotional wellbeing.

Children can potentially be offered a place at the school if their attendance is below 50% and they have been referred to a mental health support professional.

While being unable to attend school will inevitably be detrimental to academic attainment, when children arrive at the school the staff’s priority is to address their emotional and mental wellbeing.

Mr Bell said: “If a child hasn’t been to school for two years then addressing the underlying reason behind this has to be the initial priority rather than simply looking to get them caught up academically.

"First and foremost it’s important to ensure that child is emotionally happy as this makes it easier for the rest to fall into place.”

The school runs a number of strategies to help both improve the wellbeing of pupils and their engagement with education. Pupils start the school day with a “soft landing”, a thirty minute session which addresses the need of the child which could be a fitness session of physical movement, a chat with the resident school counsellor, or fulfilling the physical need of having breakfast.

Pupils can also benefit from one to one sessions covering both the curriculum content as well as their emotional needs, while pupils struggling to overcome the emotional barrier of coming to school can benefit from a home tutor who will gradually look to integrate the pupil back into a classroom environment.

One pupil who had really struggled to attend school at all was Layla Gowland, 13.

She said: “I really didn’t enjoy my last school and was not in a good place with my mental health. I went to school a total of 20 days in two years. My attendance is much better here. I like everything about the school and no one judges you. I now feel much more positive about the future.”

Key for Mr Bell is that the children never end the day with any anxiety or apprehension about returning.

He said: “We always end the day with a rest and restore session in which the children can air any anxieties and concerns they may have and we can ensure they are addressed without having to worry about things overnight.

"It’s also vital to provide support and up-skill the parents and those involved in the child’s social care as they are often also struggling. It’s why we run community days when parents and other family members can join in a session together.

"Recent sessions focused on mental health and sleep.”

The results speak for themselves with average attendance levels rising from 18% at the point children join the school to a current average of 86%.

The school has seen its intake increase by 16 since September with a significant number of children also on the waiting list.

Mr Bell said: “We live in a world of constant change which some children and adults struggle to deal with. We’ve also seen an increased demand for support since the pandemic. I think schools have been trying their best to fill the knowledge gaps but I think there perhaps should have been a greater focus on the social and emotional gaps it created.”

After twelve years working as a PE teacher and assistant headteacher in mainstream schools, Mr Bell moved into alternative provision in 2016.

He said: “I’ve dedicated the last seven years of my life to helping children who’ve struggled with mainstream education as its vital these pupils aren’t discarded and get the chance to fulfil their potential.

"Education opens the door to support a happy and healthy lifestyle but for many of these children the opening was starting to diminish.”

Mr Bell’s dedication and that of his staff certainly seems to be having the desired effect on those who matter most, the children.

Sophia Owens, 13, said: “I found it difficult at my last school and it got to the point where I felt so anxious and upset about going in. I really enjoy it here and look forward to coming into school.

"I’m a lot happier and feel more confident about myself.”

Nathan Hendry, 12, said: “I didn’t feel safe in my last school and stopped going in. I find this school much more relaxing and I now feel physically and mentally safe. The best thing about this school is I don’t feel ignored anymore.”

Oliver Teasdale, 13, added: “My last school just seemed so loud. There were 30 people in every classroom whereas here the class sizes are much smaller and the teachers can pick-up if you are not happy. My favourite lesson is Maths.”

The school, which is part of the Consilium Academies, is also pioneering research into how some children interpret and access information both visually and in audio.

The school also recently moved into a refurbished site including new state-of-the-art classrooms, kitchen area for children to cook and therapy rooms.