Thursday, 30 April 2015

Learning in Hospital – From Chelsea to Cambridge

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Community Hospital School

25 years ago, there were 30 hospital schools in England. Now, there are 14. But inspirational work to keep young people learning is discretely taking place in hospitals across the country. In the first of a series of blog posts to mark the centenary of the birth of NEC’s founder the social entrepreneur Michael Young, we visit Chelsea Community Hospital School in London and Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge to see the impressive results achieved by imaginative teachers and determined young people.

In a mainstream school, the fellow pupils of a boy who had had a brain operation were constantly pulling back his hair to look at the big scar on his head. Unable to cope with the unwanted attention, he stopped going to school. A girl whose mother and several other members of her family died in an explosion was left with no fingers or thumb on one hand. Several years after the tragedy, she is studying for a degree at the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London. Both were pupils at Chelsea Community Hospital School.

Chelsea Community Hospital School was set up 25 years ago by Janette Steel, who is still the principal. In the early days of the school, Janette worked with Kirsteen Tait of the National Association for the Education of Sick Children, one of the many organisations set up by Michael Young to bring about his vision of a better society.

When the school was inspected by Ofsted in October last year, inspectors found that: ‘Leaders and managers are extremely effective at putting into practice their belief that every child has a right to an education while in hospital.’ This is the belief that prompted Michael to set up the association. Its legacy shows how firmly grounded he was in trying to solve problems that just don’t go away.

The school is open all year, closing only for a week over Christmas. There is a full-time teaching staff and learning mentors, and psychotherapy is available for staff to help them deal with the death of a child who has been a pupil at the school. Janette is a creative arts specialist, a background reflected in the wide range of enrichment activities on offer for pupils: swimming, horse-riding, dancing, art, music, and Big Green Footsteps, a European Union-funded environmental project through which five schools from England, Iceland, Ireland, Italy and Poland are investigating energy awareness and climate change issues at national, school and individual level.

Different hospitals have different approaches to providing young people with what they need to carry on learning. For long-term patients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, there is a classroom on the cancer ward. Patients who are there for a shorter stay learn with teachers who visit their bedside or work with them in the playroom.

The ways in which illness blights the lives of young people and their families may change but the education of sick children is an issue we are unlikely, as a society, ever to resolve – and the goal-posts are constantly shifting. The number of children being admitted to hospital with obesity-related conditions has quadrupled in the 13 years since Michael died, for example, and there has been an 8% increase over the last two years in the number of young people admitted to hospital with eating disorders. The work of hospital schools is complementary to the support NEC gives to young people who are suffering from long-term illness and who are determined to continue studying and working towards qualifications.

11 May, less than two weeks away, is the first day of the annual GCSE and A level exam season. For the UK’s two million 16 to 18-year olds, no matter what their state of health, it’s more than just another Monday. At stake for each of the young people sitting exams between then and 24 June are their futures as independent adults: career choice, earnings potential, further education and training options, and, for around half of them, higher education. We wish them all well.

Ways you can help
You can help children and young people who are ill continue to learn by volunteering at your local children’s hospital or donating to Chelsea Community Hospital School or Addenbrooke’s and the Rosie. Help raise awareness of ways to help young people suffering from physical and mental illness by spreading the word about, a resource for supporting children and young people affected by a medical or a mental health condition – Facebook: Well-at-School, and Twitter: @wellatschool.

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