Derbyshire Virtual School Attachment Aware Schools Programme

A case study on Brackenfield Special School - A Journey to Learn (J2L) from 2015 to 2021 and ongoing…

Context – Derbyshire Virtual School’s Attachment Aware Schools Programme

Derbyshire Virtual School has been working with Kate Cairns Associates (now known as Knowledge Change Action) since 2015 to promote 'Attachment awareness' in schools and educational settings across the county. Brackenfield SEND School were part of the first cohort to take part in this AAS programme, and embarked on their journey in April 2015.

Derbyshire County Council and its Virtual School are committed to pursuing the best outcomes, in the widest meaning of the phrase, for all of the Children in Care and young people. Therefore, the Attachment Aware Schools programme has been carefully designed to build on the good practice and good practitioner intuition already seen in many Derbyshire schools, and to develop a network of schools committed to becoming even more attachment aware in their own school, but also to support others in the county.

The Derbyshire Virtual School believe that an attachment aware approach is not only beneficial for Children in Care, but that attachment is a universal process which is fundamental to the healthy development of all young people and adults. Therefore, they believe that a good theoretical understanding of this, coupled with the reflective ability to develop related practical approaches, will equip schools with the necessary skills to show best practice in becoming an Attachment Aware School.

The AAS programme in Derbyshire aims to:

  • Improve the conditions for Children in Care and vulnerable learners in schools and settings
  • Raise awareness of the issues and needs around attachment and trauma
  • Consolidate working relations between the Virtual School and all Derbyshire schools
  • Catalyse a new community of outstanding practice amongst schools
  • Encourage pedagogical development – trialling new ways of working led by the Virtual School
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The AAS programme develops pedagogy, practice and school ethos through theoretical input, deepening knowledge and collaborative practice. The programme offers six days of theoretical input, facilitated support and challenge throughout the year. The training and support comes from the Virtual School and some bespoke input from Kate Cairns Associates (KCA). The programmed days have been carefully designed to develop and deepen participants’ knowledge around attachment theory and trauma-informed practice, equipping them with knowledge, practical information, reference books and an e-learning package to help them disseminate the learning back to school and within their wider learning communities. The development of an AAS network across the county enables an improved knowledge of attachment needs in the schools, awareness of the impact that this has on students and staff, and develops pedagogy and practice. The participating schools, in turn, can spread knowledge and share practice with others amongst their cluster groups and localities.

Context – Brackenfield Action Research ‘A Framework for All’

Initially, two members of staff from Brackenfield SEND school were participants in the first cohort of the AAS project. They attended the full day and half day training sessions, and later commissioned training from KCA for all staff in the school.

The Derbyshire Virtual School provided Brackenfield SEND school with a bursary which was to be used for the purpose of action research following the initial AAS training. The action research projects, which every participating school undertakes, are the engine of the AAS programme and promote a process which transforms school ethos and pedagogy.

Brackenfield’s action research began with the project leads, Trish Turner (Headteacher) and Hannah Longley (Safeguarding Lead), analysing the conditions for teaching and learning for Children in Care and all vulnerable learners in their school, thinking about the school’s overall ethos and physical environment. From this initial analysis, the Brackenfield staff focused on meeting the individual needs of all children, and presented the following action research question:.

How can we develop a needs based analysis tool that supports genuine personalised learning?

The project leads developed a new matrix tool, known as Journey to Learn (J2L), that provides staff with a needs analysis methodology for all pupils, enabling them to establish personalised learning that is based on a holistic approach to education. Since 2017, this has been embedded into the whole school ethos and classroom pedagogy.

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The story behind Brackenfield’s Journey to Learn (J2L)

Why did you feel J2L was needed and would be useful?

As a school, we had a firm understanding of attachment and early years trauma. We recognised that a large percentage of our cohort had significant attachment needs and we shaped the school day and environment to support these. Beyond this, we also delivered a range of interventions to support the specific needs of individuals outside of the classroom. These included Positive Play, Drawing and Talking, and ELSA sessions - these interventions were not impactful. This led us to look at how the children were being referred to these intervention sessions, and how we were making a decision about what was most appropriate for the individual.

The conclusion we reached was that often the intervention was not targeting the route of the issue. For instance, a child displaying as not being able to integrate and play with their peers may have been referred to a course for Positive Play - however if the need of the child was further down Maslow’s Hierarchy of need and the child didn’t feel safe, then the intervention was pitched too high to have any impact. The child would require approaches or interventions to help them feel safe. The J2L allows us, through the knowledge we have of the child, to pinpoint what their ‘lowest’ area of need is and therefore target interventions more accurately. It also enables us to assess changing needs of the children over time or through adverse situations.

How did you arrive at the J2L matrix?

Behaviour is communication - the J2L allows us to interpret the behaviour and then makes suggestions of how to support the issues.

Working with the KCA’s model of ‘Stabilisation, Integration and Adaptation’, and its associated nine outcomes (see below), provided the framework for the observable behaviours we are making a judgement on.

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Talking with Kate (Cairns), we also explored our theory that all children don’t necessarily need to complete the ‘lower phases’ in entirety to experience aspects of the ‘higher’ phases. For instance, a child can still experience joy in living, and this can be observed, but may not have an accurate and coherent narrative. This had been one of the key issues in targeting strategies at too high a level for the child. The matrix provided the ‘hierarchy’ of the 9 areas within stabilisation, integration and adaptation against Maslow’s Hierarchy. It was therefore clear when assessing a child against the out- come indicators (and their associated descriptive statements) where their lowest area of need fell. The J2L then makes suggestions about what could be appropriate strategies and interventions for the child to support them.

Aims and objectives of Journey to Learn (J2L)

What did you hope to achieve by developing J2L?

  • To be able to accurately interpret what a child’s behaviour was telling us
  • To ensure that any intervention/approach/strategy was fit for purpose and impactful
  • To create a narrative around the child- which not only supports the work we do with the child and the offer that is provided, but also supports understanding of parents and other professionals involved with the child

The implementation and application of the J2L matrix

How did you use the J2L matrix, and how did you work with colleagues, children and their families to apply J2L in practice?

Initially we piloted the J2L with a core group of children who were identified by their presenting behavioural needs and/or the contextual information we had about them. The J2L was initially paper based and had far more outcome descriptor statements than it does in its current form. We trained the staff team on how to use the tool and trialled it over the period of a year. Over time we refined the content, in consultation with the staff team, and moved it to the electronic version it is now. This supported more rapid completion of the assessment. We included the information in parental meetings and through annual reviews of Education, Health and Care Plans. This provided the narrative around the child and an explanation of their individual offer.

The J2L is now completed for all children in the school and is reviewed annually. The tool generates a summary page which displays the outcome in graphical form, as seen in the blank summary page below.

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This information is then added to the key information held about each child alongside other key documentation about them, including sensory diets, positive behaviour plans, pen portraits and intimate care/medical plans.

Findings and Conclusions

What did you discover when using the J2L matrix to support children?

We discovered that in all cases, despite our knowledge and understanding of the child’s needs, we were targeting support at too high a level in the majority of cases. We also discovered that the narrative and conversation which was created around the child was as important and impactful as the information it generated.

What were the outcomes of using J2L?
Staff have a far better understanding of the needs of the child and what is required to support them. Staff are better able to articulate to others, including parents, the child’s needs and why we are doing what we are doing to support them.

What did you find out, and what was interesting?
Even children who didn’t have any obvious presenting need have benefited from the tool. By asking ourselves the questions posed when completing the assessment, it challenges what we think about the child and their needs. The J2L is completed by the team around the child, which is key, as one person’s interpretation may not be accurate. The conversation around the child is as important as the information generated.

What problems or challenges did you encounter?
Initially when we piloted the tool in its paper-based form, it was too large and took a long time to complete. As it has been refined over time, and moved to an electronic format, it is far more user friendly. It also now generates the results automatically, when previously we would have to analyse
the data manually to provide an outcome.

Were the objectives achieved?
Yes - I would also say ‘and some’. As I have mentioned previously, not only does J2L generate the data and information, but it provides the narrative around the child which supports the understanding of those working (and living) with the child of why they present as they do and what our role is in supporting them.

What is happening now, and next steps

What is Brackenfield now doing with J2L, and how is this being rolled out to other schools?

As a school we are passionate and committed to supporting all children and not just those in our school. The training we have undertaken regarding attachment has been the most impactful work we have done. As a leadership team, this has not just been impactful with the pupils, but also in supporting and managing our staff. We are keen to spread the message - the J2L is part of this, and we are keen to share it.

We have recently received ‘recap’ training from KCA to ensure that staff, and particularly new staff, are continually reflecting upon their practice through an attachment lens, and with the core theory of J2L behind this.

Through the East Midland SEND Training Hub, we provide school to school support; this may involve schools using the J2L to provide contextual information about a child or group of children, which then informs the work we do to support the school. The J2L is also available for schools to purchase, and we also provide training enabling schools to use the tool independently.

We have also incorporated learning inputs from KCA as part of our East Midlands SEND Training Hub offer, which ensures that all strands of theory to practice remain cohesive.

What is the EMST Hub?
The East Midland’s SEND Training Hub was established at Brackenfield School in 2018. It has three
key strands to it as shown below:

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The purpose of the Training Hub is not only to provide cost effective, high quality support and training to our mainstream and special school partners, but to open up the world of SEND to the wider community. SEND East Midlands - East Midlands SEND Training Hub (

What support does Brackenfield provide to other schools?

School to school support is bespoke to the school for whom we are providing support, which may be based around understanding the needs and behaviours of children with additional needs, or possibly about inclusion or assessment. We provide training and coaching for the school staff and other stake holders. The B-Level Assessment System for small steps of progress and the J2L are also available for schools to support their area of need.

The J2L, specifically, may be used as part of the coaching relationship to explore the presenting need of the child; this provides the narrative of the child from which support can be built.

What do you see as ‘next steps’ in J2L’s journey?

We are keen for other schools to benefit in the same way we have at Brackenfield. We are keen to work in partnership with other schools and forums to keep the conversation about attachment at the forefront of professional’s minds when supporting children.

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Brackenfield SEND Sch 2015 2021 branded

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