A Derry principal has developed a groundbreaking new school subject for pupils as part of a wider programme of initiatives to address mental health, self-esteem and self-awareness which she hopes will be rolled out across Northern Ireland.
Katrina Crilly, who took over as Principal of Oakgrove Integrated College in Derry two years ago, has spearheaded a raft of changes at the school, of which the new Mental and Emotional Education (MEE) subject introduced in September for Year 8 pupils is a major component.
The school is also the first post-primary school in the north to have a properly staffed Nurture Room and to become a Nurture School, while also pioneering ‘vertical’ tutor groups, whereby children from Years 8 to 14 are grouped within the same form class.
Oakgrove is also the first Trauma Informed Compassionate School in the north, and is undertaking a research pilot with Ulster University and the charity Resilio to examine the impacts of these changes.
A former vice-principal at St Cecilia’s College, Mrs. Crilly started her professional career at ABC Laboratories as a drug development manager and then left to undertake a PGCE at Queen’s University, going on to take up her first teaching post as a science teacher and special needs co-ordinator at St Patrick’s College in Maghera.
While there, Mrs Crilly led a ‘Signature’ project, an initiative which the Department of Education had introduced into various schools to achieve their target in literacy and numeracy. This proved to be an eye-opener. “What that enabled me to do was to work with small groups of children to raise their attainment in maths and literacy in St Pat’s,” Mrs Crilly told the Journal. “One of the most remarkable things that came from that was less to do with their attainment but to do with the growth of the child during that programme.
“The teachers involved, we were amazed - you might have had some of the most disengaged children and when you actually spent time with them in an environment they felt secure in, they were enabled to take risks. They started to grow, they started to flourish, and not only was it their Maths and English, their attendance improved, their engagement with school improved. That really hit me, and I thought, there is so much potential in young people we are not tapping into because they are like vessels we fillwith content day in, day out.”
In 2015, Mrs Crilly became the Vice Principal of St. Cecilia’s and said her time there reaffirmed that “when you listen to children and hear their story and you identify with their struggles and you equip them with the skills to be able to manage those struggles, you just get so much out of them”.
In September 2017, Mrs Crilly was appointed Principal of Oakgrove and again noticed that some children were under-achieving by the time they reached their GCSEs. “Our benchmark in NI would be five GCSEs and I was seeing children who hadn’t achieved, and it was frustrating. After 12 years of compulsory education we cannot get these children over a pretty low level. What is wrong? What is happening here? I kept questioning. Some people might say things like, ‘he did well considering’. We start making excuses. That doesn’t sit with me. I thought, why do we watch this unfold? My question to staff was, ‘Did this child come with a foregone conclusion?’ Unless the child has been diagnosed with a statement of special educational need, and we can have a different set of aspirations for children who have, for those other children it is completely frustrating. I call it ‘Crisis Management’, where we are managing crisis in schools. Because of the funding system, we haven’t got the resources to be able to put in place what we need to for these children. Academically some of them are floundering, socially some of them are floundering, emotionally.”
‘Stressed brains don’t learn’
Mrs. Crilly secured funding through the Integrated Education Fund to help introduce the changes.
“I thought, I’m not doing this anymore, I need to start doing something with Year 8. We will not catch them all, and the reason why is because our system is in crisis. We have so many young people in our schools who are struggling emotionally, socially, and ultimately academically because stressed brains don’t learn. They are already full. How many children come into our classes like a glass of water that is already full? You leave it sitting there it will just stay full. We have so many children in our schools who don’t know why or how their glass is full, so they are sitting trying to stop that glass from spilling over.
“There is the expectation of being a teenager, social media, other issues. I always say to our staff, our children are bringing a whole lot more than their schoolbag to school in the morning and the fact that they are turning up into our building tells us we are providing something for them. This has nothing to do with academic ability, we experience children of all abilities, and as an all-ability school I have witnessed the most academically capable children suffering socially and emotionally.”
The first thing Oakgrove did was ensure all staff and the sixth form were trained in Restorative Practice.
“What I realised,” Mrs Crilly said, “was that the way in which you interact with them will send children further into that zone of not being able to cope, or with a different approach you might just get somewhere. Every child is one significant adult away from a success story and I’d say to staff, are you that one person today for that child?
“As a Science Teacher I was always frustrated because we expect our children to use their brains every single day, every minute of the day, but it is the only organ on our curriculum that is not taught. So we will teach about the liver, the heart, the small bowel, large bowel, the reproductive system but we won’t talk to them about their brains and how their brains work. We tell them to learn, revise but what does that mean? How does the brain work? And they don’t then understand how stress affects that ability.”
The Restorative approach adopted at Oakgrove means that if an incident happens, staff never ask a child, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but instead ask what happened, how they felt at the time, what can make things better. A lot of the time, Mrs Crilly said, children don’t have a language to communicate their emotions.
“I call it the Mind, Behaviour, Results, Cycle - if they don’t understand how their mind works they will not understand why they behave or think the way they do and hence get the results they always get - this isn’t results specific to academic achievement but results they get in all areas of their life. I would say to them, everybody makes mistakes, they are part of learning. There’s nobody on the planet that doesn’t fail, it’s what you take and learn from it. A lot of children are so afraid of failing they won’t try. If you sit across from a child and say genuinely to them, ‘If you do X, Y, Z, I think you are going to pass it, and you do it in stepping stones’, and now their mind is telling them they can, that changes behaviour and they get results and that reinforces that they can do it and that builds the character to say, ‘I need to give this a go’. There’s that resilience.”
‘Vertical’ Form classes
Oakgrove are also the first school in NI were registration classes aren’t in year groups. Instead the form class takes in students from Year 8 through to Year 14. “We call them vertical tutor rooms,” Mrs. Crilly said. “For the first month for Year 8s, it is about everybody in that tutor class getting to know those three or four Year 8s so when they were out and about, they weren’t just Year 8s. And it’s been unbelievable, the Sixth Formers making their way to these Year 8s to make sure they are OK.
“And when it comes to applying for university or exam time, you have Year 8s who see what is ahead of them. Those Year 8s will know in Year 10 you make subject choices, in Year 14 you talk about university choices.
“And, instead of form teachers getting to know 25 Year 8 students, which can be difficult in our form classes, two adults have 4/5 Year 8s to support and get to know.”
In another first in Northern Ireland, as part of a research pilot with Ulster University and Marie Dunne from the charity Resilio, Oakgrove has introduced Trauma Informed Compassionate Schools training for all staff, teaching, and non-teaching. This has involved input from cognitive behavioural therapists, and the School of Psychology from Ulster University (UU) is going to help Oakgrove evaluate it.
Mrs Crilly said: “We are still dealing with trans-generational trauma in our schools coming from parents who don’t even know as they are dealing with it themselves, and only now has the system started to realise we need a trauma-informed approach. Over the summer, Marie Dunne, Karen Kirby from UU and myself put together this trauma informed approach and what we have drawn on is the Compassionate Schools model that originated in the States around schools which had looked at under-achievement, mental health and well being- they looked at the fact that we bring children into school with very clear boundaries but it might be the only place where there are boundaries. We’re the first school to receive that and we are the only school involved in this research pilot.”
Mrs Crilly said all this was about instilling self-belief and equipping children with tools to navigate their way successfully to attainment into adulthood.
“When you look at the complex nature of what we are dealing with, one of the things I go back to is, what happened to these children along the way? There is not a single child born unless there’s something medically wrong that doesn’t now how to walk. When you are one year old you have got all this. Look at the metacognitive strategies involved in this or in learning to ride a bike.
“So what has happened along the way to lead to a point where they don’t believe in themselves? My answer is the wider environment, the systems they are within have debilitated them to think, to problem solve, to use their imagination.”