Cressex School, a cooperative ethos
ALLFIE’s chair Navin visits the High Wycombe school
It is difficult to find a school which breaks the mould and offers an alternative agenda to the competitive market culture that is currently sweeping through the education system. Such schools usually fill their websites and glossy school brochures with images of diversity and statements of inclusion yet in reality exclude and reject individuals based on the assumption that it is ‘their’ fault. It is easier to lay blame with such individuals rather than challenge their own underlying attitudes, practices and procedures.
Cressex Community School, a mainstream secondary school in High Wycombe, challenges this exclusionary ideology, as we experienced during a recent school visit. Its motto is “high achievement for all is our shared responsibility”, and it espouses a cooperative ethos, being part of a larger Cooperative Learning Trust.
On arrival we were immediately struck by the accessible space and the welcoming attitudes of the students, staff and a school governor. David Hood, the Headteacher, greeted us and had planned a busy day. Historically, Cressex Community School has a chequered past of struggle and has over time developed a positive community presence built on mutual engagement. What was refreshing was that each of the senior staff we met shared a commitment to the school’s values of ‘openness, honesty, social responsibility and caring for others’. The school had an impressive committed learning support team (the SENCO later told us that they are ‘committed people who do more than just “tick the boxes’’’), with Learning Mentors, Student Support Officers, and Teaching Assistants. Approximately a fifth of the school population had Education, Health and Care Plans, over two thirds were identified as having English as an Additional Language, two fifths were on Pupil Premium, and most of its students are of a Pakistani background.
Cressex Community School has its fair share of challenges, some of which are to develop its sixth form provision, ensuring students get comprehensive feedback, managing behaviour, and working at effectively managing their mental health support. The school is embedded in an extremely selective local authority, operating an 11+ examination system within which children are typically subject to either being ‘winners or losers’, although there are parents who opt for their children not to take part in such a divisive examination.
During our visit, we were welcomed into a Year 6 induction session for approximately forty students starting in September. This session involved students identified as having SEN from primary feeder schools. The morning induction group we observed were exploring science; students were working in small groups with the support of current Cressex students who themselves had identified support plans. We discovered preliminary work had been carried out with the school’s SENCO who had visited the feeder primary schools. Like many Learning Support teams, some students had English as an Additional Language (EAL), catering for over 30 languages. Behind the scenes, the SENCO had met parents, building trust and confidence. Where EAL crossed with issues of support, particularly relating to mental health difficulties, the school often struggled to get both sets of needs met in a joined up way. There was an impressive community commitment to student voice and the development of reciprocal friendship groups. We welcomed the SENCO’s honest and open appraisal of her own commitment and a genuine frustration about finding a solution to supporting students who it is often claimed require ‘one-to-one supervision in a nurturing, quiet environment’.
Interestingly, and quite by accident, we spoke to a group of parents who were visiting the school with their children. These parents shared their previous struggles and frustrations with trying to secure support for their children. One parent told us about her daughter’s issue with a primary school which lacked understanding about making reasonable adjustments (requiring large print). This experience unfortunately is still typical and one that usually escalates into the parties being at loggerheads.
Later we had an opportunity to meet the Deputy Headteacher, who is responsible for attendance and behaviour. What was again impressive was his commitment to working with the local community. There was a concerted whole-school approach to managing behaviour, and a recognition of the need for effective support. In response to financial constraints and cuts, the school had chosen to keep the leadership team small rather than cut learning and support staff, even though there are continuing pressures to increase student numbers. Of note is the personal contact the Deputy Headteacher has with families within the local community. There was a real concern about ensuring the cooperative values included democracy, solidarity, and equality and equity. There was a recognition of continuing work around promoting disability equality and removing barriers to participation, particularly within a community where disability, ethnicity, and religion can be not only all equally and collectively relevant but are equally welcomed and celebrated. Indeed, there was a recognition of moving towards a greater diversity of disabled people.
Talking to four students about the support they received, each shared specific details of the different ways the learning support team had made reasonable adjustments. There was a real sense from the students of enthusiasm for learning which was being transformed into pursuing their aspirations. One of the students described the support she received when
“she did her work, going outside, and school clubs – especially the sport club.” (Alison)
Another student stated that that the school is
“a good environment, a good community, everyone socialises, there’s great respect in the school, people treat you in the way they’d expect to be treated, and the teachers are fantastic.” (Safdar)
In contrast, their earlier schooling experiences were markedly different. One of the students said that one teacher in his primary school:
“didn’t get where I was coming from, and thought I was doing things wrong on purpose, and trying to skive, not do the work which had been a bit of a struggle.” (Steven)
As the visit was nearing its end, we had an opportunity to speak with Katy Simmons, who is the Chair of Governors. Katy shared her earlier experiences, describing the ‘old’ school as being:
“draughty, inaccessible and the kind of school to which nobody wanted to send their children.” (Katy)
Things have certainly changed: there was a clear ethos, with students acting as ‘associate governors’ contributing to this transformative change of realising the values and struggle for inclusion. What we experienced in visiting Cressex Community School was the difficulties facing schools seeking to serve their communities. Whilst government’s educational policy continues to advance its selective and competitive agenda, this school offers an important reminder of what shared community values can mean. It is not any one individual who carries this agenda, but a shared philosophy and commitment to the values of social responsibility, equality and social justice.
We would like to sincerely thank the students, parents, SENCO, Deputy Headteacher and Headteacher for inviting us to the school, and sharing their experience with us.