I started Headstart with a dream of creating a place for children who just could not fit into the mainstream school system. From sitting in High school as a student, wanting so much more from my own curriculum, to then training as a teacher and knowing I wanted to reach the children who had barriers to learning or who were excluded for various reasons from being in class.
I wanted children to come and have fun whilst learning
I wanted a community where they felt safe and nurtured
I wanted to ensure small numbers
I wanted something different that built a child's confidence
I wanted a diverse curriculum that motivated children to come into school and learn
I believed that the large numbers in a mainstream setting was not always conducive to learning for some and could cause anxiety. The curriculum I believed at the time was restrictive and could be more creative to engage more children.
I wanted my school-
To be small enough so children were catered for individually and not feel intimidated or lost
Where teachers had time to listen
Time to get to know all the children's needs
Where we looked at the whole child
I knew it had to be a rural location and I knew there were going to be animals.
I knew it had to be an ethos of positive reinforcement, I knew I wanted it to be a safe place and a nurturing community
I knew I had a lot to learn.
When I first saw Headstart, the barn, that is now the main building, it was full of hay and potatoes.
At first I invested to build the first classrooms and some computers and essential resources. I was involved in the construction process and the clearing of the fields. I did not want the curriculum to restrict but to enhance learning.
My father was a drummer so a drum-kit was high on my list . He sat on it one day midst
hay and potatoes saying it would never work . He always worried my Dad . Unfortunately he didn’t live to see the finished article .
My first classroom with 4 computers and an office in the cupboard, was where I taught all the children.
My first students was a small group of 4. I wrote the curriculum to meet their individual needs and listened to them.
I remember a small boy from inner city London who had never seen green fields. He was looked after, very challenging and miles away from his family. He discovered a passion for Shakespeare and insisted I read it to him through his break, sitting outside in the field that surrounded the barn .
“Do you know what Miss?” he said
"No" I said
"This is like heaven here "innit."
My eyes filled up and I knew I was getting it right .
Quickly I learnt what worked and what was less effective.
My second area of the barn to develop was to be an autism friendly area. Each room had access to the outside . Walls were plain . A sensory room in place . Interactive learning board .
The success of this Unit led to another, and now years later we specialise in Autism.
I wanted children to be challenged, but have fun at the same time .
After a while I was able to own the building outright, and joined by some dedicated teachers and some vocational specialists, Headstart School was happening and on the way .
At first I was known as the school on a farm in a barn .
Over a period of years, I wrote and improved policies, designed and structured the curriculum, learnt about Health and Safety, wrote IEPs, wrote provision for statements and eventually as the numbers required Headstart was a registered school. I was fortunate to work with experts and professionals with much experience in special education and we developed and progressed my vision.
Students learnt core subjects with me and then worked on looking after the farm . They followed bricklaying courses in the main barn , painting and decorating , put up fences , built the chicken pens, rode on tractors. It was the beginnings of our vocational learning courses of today.
My first office, now a cupboard ,the main barn floor was concrete, but students took ownership of developing their school. It belonged to them in a sense, and it was just a great place and still is .
Students who had been out of school for years, came through the gate every morning and they continue to come and continue to thrive.
In those first years all students left with vocational qualifications and at least Entry level English and Maths . Some had not attended school for years . Some through anxiety, some because there were no suitable places , but they came to Headstart and they achieved. From those foundations, expectations grew, as did the curriculum . Therapeutic input increased and was integrated into the day. The teachers, working with behaviour specialists and OT's and other therapists in the classroom.
Some educators didn’t take us seriously, but parents and children loved it and children thrived.
The school on a farm in a barn was going to be something special, and was making a difference . Making its mark.
Now we have two amazing sites over 60 passionate staff, therapists working alongside the children, but the heart remains .You can see the passion in the staff's eyes.
Not just outdoor practical learning where children thrive .
So much more .
Nicki Dann BA hons, PGCE