In my role as a leader in an education charity with a small independent special school at its heart, I have designed and delivered courses in behaviour management which incorporate the ethos of the organization and train professionals in best practice. Key among the core values I strongly advocate for is the importance of ‘Banking Compassion’ – a term we use a lot at the school but which originates in work done by Portsmouth Local Safeguarding Board back in 2016. It refers to the belief in continuing to invest professional love and care in the children and families we serve, without any guarantee of a return. In attempting to explain the concept I’ve been reflecting on a day a few years ago which highlights the lived reality of ‘Banking Compassion’ for staff working in SEN.
For me the day in question was full of the usual hustle and bustle of a school day combined with meetings involving various aspects of the organisation’s work – a complex discussion about one of our services took up most of the morning, and this was interrupted by knocks on the door and phones ringing with questions from staff, students and outside callers. A Year 11 group set off on their DofE residential – they all pitched up despite the cold and drizzly weather – a triumph in itself; there were lots of safeguarding worries to deal with, which is normal for us; there was a lot of laughter among staff and students and absolute hilarity at times – also normal!
At around 2.00 pm I received a phone call from a member of school SLT who had been assaulted by a student whilst driving him home. The incident was particularly upsetting because at one stage the student spat in this staff member’s face, a traumatic thing to deal with at any point, but at the height of a global pandemic, as we were at the time, it brought with it more acute anxieties than usual.
The manager was very calm and insisted that she was ok; she continued with her day and was there to support her team at debrief. When I spoke with her later in the afternoon, her main concern was what the child was going through, and what the consequences for him would be. She understood the implications for managing the risks going forward, but was very anxious that no decisions should be made which would have a negative impact on the child in the long run. Another colleague, who works with the same child and has been at the receiving end of some similarly dangerous behaviour, came to me to express deep concern about the impact on the student and his family of anything which would interrupt his education.
Tough decisions have to be made, in each case, which take into account the needs of the child and the risks entailed for her/him, for other students and for staff at the school. This is always a complex and nuanced process involving the student, parents, commissioners and other external stakeholders working with the family. In this case significant time, energy and resources were invested in generating a raft of measures which would keep everyone safe, would avoid another painful rejection for the student and which would ensure his needs would continue to be met, including his need for love and belonging.
Whatever decisions are made, we check ourselves to ensure that they are underpinned by the commitment of staff to bank compassion with our children, and that this overrides other considerations. The school team build and maintain authentic relationships with students, with all the challenges and responsibilities these carry; it is in the DNA of our work to hold at the forefront of practice an enduring concern for the best interests of the children in our care, regardless of the rejection from them we face on a daily basis.
Continuing to bank compassion in the face of physical aggression, verbal abuse, threats and phlegm is a major test of our commitment to the models we rely on. Those of us who work with children who have special educational needs, the alternative is unimaginable.
Dr Catherine Brennan
Designated Safeguarding Lead and Head of School