Clare Mount Specialist Sports College in Wirral is a well-established specialist school for students aged 11 to 19 with moderate learning difficulties and additional needs. Headteacher Kim Webster speaks to Educate about the privilege of running a specialist school.
Breaking down barriers
by Jennifer Chamberlain
‘As a youngster I always liked to be the leader, the one with initiative. I have always liked to take risks and to see how far I can push myself, ‘ says headteacher Kim Webster. ‘From an early age, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be, I would say I wanted to teach and help youngsters be the best they can be.’
Competitive by nature, Kim gravitated towards sport at school, a passion and subject that has stayed with her throughout her career as a PE teacher and now as a headteacher of a sports college. ‘I actually didn’t enjoy school that much, probably because I just wanted to play and compete all day long rather than study. Few teachers got that but I believed there had to be a better way to teach kids like me who didn’t enjoy studying.’ As a result, Kim decided to be ‘that teacher’.
Though originally from the North, Kim trained at Bedford College for Physical Education, combining her love for sport with her desire to teach. After completing her teaching practice, Kim took her first job at a school in Cambridge before moving home to get married.
After teaching in comprehensive schools in deprived areas and not one to shy away from a challenge (she is also a mum of twins), Kim decided it was time to take her career in a new direction. This new direction turned out to be Clare Mount Specialist Sports College. ‘I had very little experience in this specialised field but thought I would apply anyway. I landed the job and thought I would do it for a couple of years then move on…that was 21 years ago!’ says Kim. ‘I was told I’d either love it or hate it.’
Little did Kim know that the buzz she got from working with Clare Mount students would keep her at the school for more than two decades. Not only that, but sport would continue to have just as much, if not more, of an important role to play in her students’ lives. ‘Soon after I started, I took a group of sixth formers who couldn’t read or write to Wales on a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition. It was phenomenal! They were amazing!,’ beams Kim. ‘Watching them reading maps and working together to gain their bronze award was my eureka moment. I knew then that ‘special’ was for me.’
With its status as a sports college, physical education plays a central role in school life at Clare Mount. As well as the known health and physical benefits of PE, Kim believes it has had a positive impact on attendance and attainment figures, as well as on behaviour. ‘PE and sport helps our pupils so much socially and personally, building on their self-esteem and fuelling an ‘I can’ mentality’, says Kim. ‘Inspired by Nelson Mandela’s quote “Sport has the power to change the world”, students at Clare Mount are encouraged to be catalysts for change, breaking down barriers and challenging perceptions of their special educational needs through sports. Indeed, the school has won a number of sports accolades in recent years including Merseyside Sport Secondary School of the Year (2015) and Youth Sport Trust Outstanding School of the Year for Inclusion (2016).
Having taken up a variety of roles during her time at the school, it was Kim’s predecessor at the school who encouraged her to become a headteacher herself, a role that she took up in 2014. ‘My headteacher gave me the confidence and support to keep moving forwards and to believe in myself. She also encouraged me to complete my Masters at Chester University specialising in Autism.’
Clare Mount educates and supports students with a wide range of additional needs, including Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, visual impairment and deafness to name but a few. Teams of professionals specialising in speech and language, hearing sport as well as psychologist and social workers offer support where necessary.’
With 200 students enrolled, Clare Mount is bigger than the average specialist school. However, the class sizes are kept small with just 7 to 12 pupils in each class. ‘Small class sizes facilitate enhanced rapport with teachers and pupils alike. Whole school assemblies really feel like a family coming together to share their experiences and celebrate successes,’ says Kim.
A recent school survey highlighted the child centred ethos at Clare Mount as an area of real strength and relatively small numbers help teachers to really get to know each pupil in a short space of time. ‘We treat every child as an individual, mapping out individualised programmes to support their learning. We are always aspirational in our approach, teaching our pupils to be independent and resilient and always with the view that they will be accepted into the outside world.’
As a secondary school, preparing students for the future is of utmost importance. As they near the end of their time in compulsory education, Clare Mount students are supported in a number of ways when considering their study and career options, including visits from more than 40 learning providers as well as work experience placements.
One of the most important things to the headteacher is creating a sense of community, and the school enjoys a supportive and collaborative relationship with parents and carers. However, the fact that 80% of students come to school on escorted transport, not with their parents, means that the school has to work extra hard to maintain strong relationships as well as supporting students to maintain their own friendships. ‘One of the difficulties with attending a special school, and being bussed in rather than going to the one in your local area, is that your friends don’t live next door; they may live 20 miles away. We talk to the children about friends and school being a family and try and create that community atmosphere for everyone’ The school host regular events, including a monthly parent/carer group, a ‘chill and chat’ club as well as a weekly community sports night, to boost this harmonious home/school partnership and is in the process of building a community cafe.
Looking to the future, Kim is keen to build on the Clare Mount’s strong foundations. Her vision for the school is based on an acronym of the word CHILD: ‘C is for our child-centred approach; H represents the many holidays and vast range of other provisions we offer to our pupils; I is for the information channels we put in place for our parents/carers; L is for links in terms of the all-important transition to life after Clare Mount and D represents the emphasis we place on the rounded development of each of our pupils.’