Published: 16:30, 06 October 2020
A special school which opened its doors last week is planning on using a Scandinavian approach with its students.
Infiniti School, in The Street, Doddington, near Sittingbourne , will operate a “forest school” for its youngsters, which is popular in Norway and Sweden.
The concept, which embraces outdoor play in wooded spaces as a tool for learning and development, has been around in the UK for a few years. New head teacher, Nick Rogers, thinks coupled with the school’s outdoor site it will be really effective for his young cohort.
The 40-year-old explained how Infiniti school will take up to 32 children from Year 7 to Year 13 with special education needs, as well as having six members of staff and language or occupational therapists.
Mr Rogers wants to specialise in outdoor education at Infiniti, which currently doesn’t have any students as it waits for Kent County Council to refer anyone it thinks will match the school’s criteria.
He said: “What we’re hoping with the outdoor education and forest school is that the engagement, building on relationships and all the positive aspects of those will have a knock on effect in other areas.
“It’s going to be a therapeutic environment where we work with the students, which is different to the mainstream approach.”
Mr Rogers, who was born and raised in Sittingbourne, has spent two years in America completing a Masters in special educational needs (SEN) and inclusion, which involved working at a secure unit in a mountain in West Virginia and a school for students with Down’s Syndrome, which had its own flat to help teach life skills.
The Doddington school, which was previously a primary school but was forced to shut in 2006 , was expected to open in June, but was delayed due to Covid-19.
“The 32 students would be a bubble in itself,” Mr Rogers said about how he has prepared for youngsters coming in during the pandemic.
Mr Rogers praised the school’s site, claiming it is exactly what it needs to deliver the type of teaching he wants to do.
He said: “A lot of the time in SEN schools the actual premises isn’t suited to what they want to do.
'They have an in-depth knowledge of their needs and that’s one of the most important things.'
“We want to be outdoors based and involve sport and the two big fields we have here will be perfect for that.”
Students who attend the school won’t only see a friendly face in Mr Rogers and his staff, but they’ll also have the chance to meet Chewie, the school dog.
The playful six-month-old Yorkshire Terrier lives with teaching assistant Melanie Westell and isn’t just there to boost morale.
Chewie, named after Star Wars wookie Chewbacca, will eventually be trained to become a therapy dog to help a range of needs for the school’s SEN students.
Mr Rogers highlighted how eager he was to welcome students into the classroom in an environment which allows their teacher to get to know them extremely well.
He said: “Because of the staff and student numbers they’ll be in groups of eight, compared to 30 or so at a mainstream school.
“It has a lot of knock on effects, such as staff getting to know the students more and cater for their in depth and complex needs, which in a group of 30 would be really hard.
“They have an in-depth knowledge of their needs and that’s one of the most important things.”
More staff will be recruited as the school gets bigger.
“We’re fortunate we’ve got a very large building with a very small number of people initially,” said head teacher Neil Dipple talking about possible challenges with the coronavirus and social distancing regulations.
“It’ll be a challenge but we have the luxury of space and few people and we can put systems like one-way exit and entry in place.
“I really like the environment we have around us, it’s going to be a real strength of the school to have an area for every class to have their own outdoor space.”
In comparison to the purpose-built Aspire school, Doddington’s is a small building on a long narrow road through the village, although with a surprising amount of light and space.
There were some concerns about how students would be able to make their way to and from school.
Mr Rogers said: “That is something the landlord mentioned to me when we started looking at the site, but I explained many of the children would be on an Education, Health and Care Plan and would be arriving at the school in a taxi.”
In nearly two decades of being involved with SEN, teaching children who have been excluded, including his time in the States, Mr Rogers thinks there has been a shift in how children with additional needs are perceived. He said: “It’s very much changed from seeing a child behaving badly and thinking they’re a naughty student to trying to understand why they are behaving badly.
“As a teacher you would learn about social, emotional and behaviour difficulties, but now you are taught about social, emotional and mental health needs, as a child’s behaviour is more often than not a result of something happening. This change acknowledges the student as a vulnerable person.”
During an exclusive look round the school on International Teacher’s Day the head teacher spoke of how important it was to have schools like his in the area.
Another is planned to open on the former Danley Middle School site in Sheppey in September 2022 for 120 young people with special needs.
Aspire will welcome up to 32 pupils in September, growing to 160 children over five years.