How to build a sensory garden at your school

Sensory garden

Browsing through the hundreds of ideas submitted to The School We’d Like competition, a sensory or wildlife garden jumped out as a project which many teachers were calling out for, especially at special schools.

But what are the secrets to creating the perfect sensory garden? We spoke to Pauline Holbrook, deputy headteacher at Portland Academy, one of the runners-up in our special schools category with an idea to build a sensory woodland walk, and Robert Sergent-Fairley, an expert in building sensory gardens for schools, to find out how to build a stimulating outdoor learning space.

Choosing the right space

A sensory garden can be everything from a window box to a huge area. It really depends how much space a school has, says Pauline. But there’s always a space in the school you can make into a more sensory environment. So no school should be put off.

The shape and the size of it is determined by what the school wants it use the space for, she adds. It also depends what students you have. For example, if you don’t have any children in a wheelchair, you can have tighter corners and more slopes.

Pauline explained: “Sometimes schools start too big or too small and at the end of the day you’ve also got to be aware that somebody has got to look after it. These things don’t look after themselves. There’s nothing worse than an unloved space in the school.”

What to include in your sensory garden

• Sight

Robert says the visual impact of the space is the most important element. His recommended mantra for schools is green, green and more green.

Raised planters are great for schools because it cuts down on maintenance and means you don’t have to hack out the ground, he advises. Trellis work is also good because you can grow climbers up it. It also provides privacy for the children in the garden. The biggest impact will be from the trees, which should always be evergreen so children can use the garden all year round.

• Touch

Every single plant has a different feeling – wide, narrow, elliptical, oval or hairy. Touch can also be covered using ground surfaces such as mosaics, pebbles, gravel, polished glass pieces and shingles. Robert recommends using timber – rough, smooth, grooved – in pathways or deckings. There are plenty of stone materials including bricks and pavings which feel great to touch under foot or hand.

• Smell

Robert advises choosing flowers that are highly scented or shrubs such as the Mexican orange blossom which, when you rub the leaves, gives out a fragrant, aromatic scent. Timber smells great when it dries out too. Shrubs, flowers, herbs, leaves – these can all give off a wonderful scent. Lavender and rosemary are two classic plants for this purpose.

• Hearing

One thing that’s tricky to cover is hearing, Robert admits. However, you can cover that by including tall plants like bamboos for the wind to blow through or short tufty plants. In the autumn some of the plants throw out seed packets which rattle. You can also hang items from trees such as wind chimes.

Water features can also be a useful addition, if there is space. “You can get a very good self contained pebble pool from your local garden centre,” Pauline says. “It’s very safe because it’s got the mesh over and you can bury it down.”

• Taste

A fruit and vegetable garden are the most common ways schools stimulate this sense, explains Robert. Although this is entirely dependent on space and budget.


If you’ve got older students then you can make the maintenance duties part of their work experience programme.

“If you’ve got a really good site team or interested members of staff, you can build it into the curriculum, which is something we do,” she said. “We do horticulture for students and have work experience with the site team. That gives them a huge ownership of it so you don’t get as much damage – accidental or otherwise. It can also be built into your site maintenance contract.”

Remember that a lot of things grow over the summer when you are not there and your school will need to take that into consideration.

Pauline explained: “Again, it’s about considering who is going to look after it over holiday periods and water plants, especially if things are in tubs as they are going to be more susceptible to dying off. It’s the planning beforehand which makes it really work.”

Robert says one way to avoid maintenance headaches is to use artificial grass. It’s so good, you won’t even tell the difference, he says.

The benefits

For Pauline’s students, learning outside is infinitely more meaningful than reading books. The children learn by doing and experience. But whether your students are SEN or not, the garden can be a stimulating place to learn any subject.

“Just getting students to talk about what they are experiences all helps with the learning,” Pauline says. “It has huge benefits and gets them to use all their senses.”


Supporting students with special needs when they leave school

Leaving school

At the moment I am ticking off the days to when our year 11 pupils leave. Their departure sees not only the end of five years of teaching but most importantly the last three years having spent planning their transition post 16. This is an anxious time for pupils and their parents and the success of all the planning will not be felt until at least six months after they leave school.

When I started at Southbrook School – an 11 to 16 special educational needs school – more than three years ago, I was given the task of improving our pupil transition to post 16 colleges. Pupils in previous years would leave at 16 having filled in an application form and then turn up on day one of college. There was little exchange of information about the pupils and very few pupils had taster days or planned visits. Not surprisingly, pupils would be placed on inappropriate post 16 courses, they would not get the help and guidance they needed because information sharing had not taken place and so pupils were in effect starting all over again with their education. It was as if the pathway from school to college was totally separate. This situation had to change and quickly.

So, I set about meeting all the college leads at the further education providers our pupils went onto and building transparent working relationships. This took a little while but has been vital in transforming our transition process.

Once a year we hold a pupil-parent transition evening. Previously this had been a pretty formal affair, where information about post-16 options had been given out. For the past two years I have turned this evening on its head and made the colleges sell themselves to parents and pupils. The effect on the evening has been dramatic and the feedback from parents was really positive. It shouldn’t be a given that colleges should just take our pupils – they should have to work for it, show what they can offer and why should we choose them over another provider.

I also set about sending pupils on taster days, establishing parent-pupil visits and also putting the college leads in direct contact with our pupils and their parents really early on in the transition process. Establishing these links early has helped relieve stress, create dialogue and made the school evaluate how we can improve the transition process further.

One of the big challenges with the transition process was somewhere central to hold and share information with parents. I have been using our school website for this and pestering our stakeholders, outside agencies and post-16 colleges to add to this and regularly update it. A real issue at the moment is the move from disability living allowance (DLA) topersonal independence payments (PIPs) and the consequences of this. I have been using the school website to keep up with the developments here, try to unpick the governmental jargon and make it accessible to parents. This is an ongoing challenge and one where there is more work to do.

An area of transition which is hard to deal with is where the parental choice is to seek local authority funding and apply for placement in a private post 16 college. For some of our pupils this is the right choice and the state funded colleges just could not cope or do not offer appropriate education for these individuals. But for others it is not always clear cut and you sometimes have to take a backseat in this decision process.

So, you have a pupil with quite complex needs who will probably never live independently and will always need support. Her parents are keen for a place in a private college that will educate her to 19 in a residential setting. They need a break and time to get a bit of family time back. But then, what about post 19? Funding for residential private provision post 19 is most certainly not going to happen, so does this child then restart her education with the local state funded college up until to the age of 24 before becoming part of adult services?

This is the area of transition that is trickiest and one that involves a real overview of the system, the services on offer, the college courses, the independent providers, the finances, the views and feelings of the pupil and their parents. It is also an ever changing dynamic – new government means changes to funding, guided learning hours at college and so on.

What is crucial is that the staff in school who are involved in transition pass on and share information and also stay in the establishment long enough to get the systems in place so that if they leave a great black hole is not created. If I left my school now I am quietly confident that the pupils would miss me for a little while and our kitchen staff would benefit from the extra food they find themselves with but I would take with me 3 years of hard earned information and knowledge about how to make transition Post 16 a success. That information and knowledge is hard to get back quickly.

What are the challenges ahead? Well the transition process is dynamic and the market is changing all the time; the rising participation age, the NEETs (not in employment, education or training) agenda and the change in disability living allowance, all alter the framework post 16. Parents and pupils need the information and teachers need to be kept up to date. What is more the statistics are frightening – only about 6% of pupils with SEN leave college post 16 and enter paid employment in Devon. More needs to be done. Getting transition right is crucial.

Labour calls for lessons on relationships in national curriculum

School pupils in playground

Labour has tabled an amendment to the children and families bill which could make issues such as equality, abuse and same-sex relationships a compulsory part of the curriculum.

The amendment from three shadow Home Office ministers would add theteaching of issues such as consent to the curriculum covering biology. The amendment, due to be voted on next Tuesday, is unlikely to receive support from the government as the education secretary, Michael Gove, has made it clear that he believes school lessons are better spent focusing on academic subjects.

In a speech to the education select committee in April he suggested that teaching other subjects was a better guard against what he called “risky behaviour”. “If you look at the way in which we can encourage students not to indulge in risky behaviour, one of the best ways we can do that is by educating them so well in a particular range of subjects that they have hope in the future.

“There is a direct correlation between how well students are doing overall academically and their propensity to fall into risky behaviour.”

The Department for Education (DfE) has indicated that teachers can teach “relationships” if they wish. Groups including Women’s Aid, the Family Planning Association and the National Union of Students are among a dozen groups supporting the amendment. Maggie Atkinson, children’s commissioner, welcomed the campaign after a report last month which showed that children’s access to pornography led to “harmful attitudes and behaviours”. The report recommended that the Department for Education “should ensure that all schools understand the importance of, and deliver, effective relationship and sex education which must include safe use of the internet”.

The DfE is considering including gardening and personal finance as part of the personal social health and economic (PSHE) education curriculum.

The shadow home affairs minister, Stella Creasy, said: “When we’re teaching children about compost and compound interest but not consent, something has to change. Sexual harassment, violence and abuse affects millions of young people in Britain – that’s why we have to teach them not only about the biology of sex but to respect each other and have healthy relationships. This coalition shows just how many parents, domestic violence and sexual health charities agree as well as young people themselves. Hoping schools will do this isn’t good enough – it’s time to put consent on the curriculum.”

Parliament debated the merits of making sex and relationships education compulsory earlier this year as the Jimmy Savile and Rochdale child abuse scandals brought the issue of sexual abuse to the top of the national agenda.

Women’s Aid ambassador and singer Jahmene Douglas said: “Following the debate in parliament in February this bill presents the government with a great opportunity to ensure that all children have access to the good quality sex and relationship education they need and are asking for.”

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has received 30,000 reports of sexual harassment since launching a little more than a year ago, said: “The huge number of stories the Everyday Sexism Project has received from children and teenagers shows beyond doubt that there is an urgent need for far greater information and support to be provided in schools. Many of the young people who contact us are confused and scared about sex they have seen in videos shared online or on mobile phones. Others have reported the far end of the playground being called ‘the rape corner’ and young people saying ‘rape is a compliment really’ in classroom discussions. It is time to ensure this most vital of topics is properly covered by the national curriculum.”

Even Ofsted recently found that PSHE is not good enough in a “substantial proportion of schools” and that this is leaving young people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Phonics screening test, learning with objects and reading intervention

Learning phonics

Phonics screening check valid but unnecessary

A study to look at the validity of the new phonics screening test, undertaken by year 1 pupils in England, has concluded that it is a valid but unnecessary test. The test does help identify school children who are falling behind with their reading but is not any more useful or informative than teacher assessments that have already been conducted.

Led by Oxford University psychologists in collaboration with the University of York and City of York, the local authority queried if the test was needed as a statutory assessment.

Later this month, the phonics screening check will be used again for this year’s six year-olds in year 1 at primary school in England. The phonics check requires pupils to read aloud 40 real and made-up words.

The researchers argue that ongoing monitoring of pupils as they learn phonics during early development of literacy skills is of greater benefit to teachers than the screening test.

History teaching with SEN pupils

A researcher at the University of York has been looking at the impact of using historical objects on the learning of children at key stage 2 with special educational needs (SEN).

Jennifer Kinsmen found that pupils in her study group engaged and enjoyed learning about the past using a object-oriented approach to teaching and most showed improvement from session to session.

Kinsmen found the most interesting data came from those children with the lowest levels of attainment due to the severity of their SEN who, when using an object-focused approach, achieved consecutive high marks in each session. Their historical inquiry skills developed as they were able to determine what the objects were used for and what the objects were able to tell us about the people who left them behind.

Her thesis concluded that this more tactile approach to learning suited the children’s learning styles greater than a more passive approach.

Reading interventions study

It is never too late to help pupils struggling to read say the authors of anew report into extensive reading interventions.

Researchers from Florida State University, the University of Texas and the American Institutes for Research looked at evidence for pupils aged 10 to 18 with reading difficulties. The research focused on school-wide, long-term models for intervention and found that from the middle of primary school there is less emphasis on learning to read and this had serious consequences for those children who hadn’t yet mastered the skill.

The report found no significant differences in pupil outcomes were achieved by changes to group size, hours of intervention or the year of intervention and concluded that although accelerated reading growth in the later year of school is challenging, it isn’t too late to help struggling readers.

The sexy A-level set texts scandalising our teenagers’ morals

A-level students in exam hall

Despite the well-known adage that all literature is about sex and death, the Times and the Daily Mail got rather agitated today about the inclusion of that Playboy-esque filthfest, Ovid’s Amores, in the most recent Latin AS-level exam. “Slip off your chemise without a blush”, reads a translation of the extract. “Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.” All sorts of naughty things? Dear God, spare the innocence of our nation’s teenagers!

Forgive me if I don’t join the moral outrage brigade in this instance, but I’m pretty sure the average UK teenager isn’t going to balk at much in Ovid. Take the UK singles chart – a compilation predominantly controlled by the consumer habits of teens – where the present number one,Blurred Lines, includes the lyrics “Lemme be the one you back your ass up to /… Had a bitch, but she ain’t as bad as you / So, hit me up when you pass through / I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Even at its most risqué, Ovid at least preserved a semblance of mutual pleasure. In a world where “tearing you up”, “smashing you”, and “hitting it” is commonplace, exposure to sensual – rather than violent – language surrounding sex might even do the little scamps some good.

Meanwhile, it would be prudent to bear in mind that this is hardly the first time 16-year-olds have encountered amorous literature in the classroom. Studying sex is almost as old as the act itself – as the list below shows.

Solomon’s Song of Songs

The Bible, not usually known as a bastion of liberal sexual attitudes, openly celebrates the honeymoon union of a bride and bridegroom in Solomon’s Song of Songs. There are some delightful euphemisms for a variety of sexual acts in this section that they certainly won’t teach in Sunday school, including: “Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits” – not to mention the fact that every so often during such intimate sessions, the voice of “friends” mysteriously pipe up, prompting the more suspicious reader to wonder exactly where these friends are. Compliments of the day are somewhat lost on the modern reader – “your breasts are like two fawns” might not prompt a favourable response nowadays but then again, Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas was happy to call hers “lady lumps”, so anything is possible.

The Miller’s Tale


Often thought of as the “bawdiest” Canterbury Tale (although Chaucer provides a surfeit of material to choose from), the Miller’s Tale is a particularly charming story about everyone trying to win the affections of local married beauty Alisoun. Alisoun decides she’ll go with a lodging student, and when another admirer interrupts their lovemaking session, she responds by sticking her bottom out the window in the darkness and admonishing him to kiss her on the lips. The nation’s greatest wordsmith then reports that the admirer “kissed her naked arse full savorly”, apparently still none the wiser that the cheeks he is caressing are an altogether different kind – but, to his credit, he does pause to wonder why she appears to have grown a beard.

The Cement Garden

An A-level text that I myself was subjected to in the classroom, this 1978 novel by Ian McEwan details the incestuous relationships – from mutual masturbation to brother-sister copulation – that develop between four children after the death of their parents. Classroom analysis of this challenging piece of literature was made all the more uncomfortable in my youth by our middle-aged teacher attempting to engage a roomful of 16-year-old boys by asking, “Everybody masturbates, right? Right, guys?” The 1999 film adaptation was summarised by one particularly astute critic as “creepy”.

Elegy 19: To His Mistress Going To Bed


John Donne’s erotic elegy includes the rhyming couplet beloved of many literary scholars: “License my roving hands, and let them go/ Before, behind, between, above, below.” So far, so sexy. Not every line is gold, however – “Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering” is more likely to produce tittering than titillation when offered up to your high school girlfriend on the night of your leavers’ ball in 2013.

Goblin Market


Another common A-level text, narrative poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti warns against the dangers of premarital promiscuity and STDs with the sage words: “We must not look at goblin men/ We must not buy their fruits/ Who knows upon what soil they fed/ Their hungry thirsty roots?” Unfortunately, Laura – the character who is ultimately led astray by “goblin men” – hadn’t been heeding her sensible friend Lizzie’s warnings. In Rossetti’s candid words, she went out for a night on the razz with the goblins and “suck’d until her lips were sore” on those thirsty roots, thus sealing a tragic fate for herself. There’s always one.

The World’s Wife


Finally, who could forget the entire poetry collection of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, beloved of A-level examiners the country over? Writing the line from Little Red Cap “I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur” on my homework diary signalled the apotheosis of my teenage obsession with Tom Selleck. Long may it continue.

Meditation in schools: calming minds and beating stress

School meditation

If the sheer amount of work generated by school has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation before, during or after school. Even a few minutes meditation can give students and teachers a sense of calm and peace of mind that benefits their emotional and physical health.

Most forms of meditation centre on the concept of mindfulness, which makes one aware of their moment-to-moment experiences; noticing and accepting their thoughts, feelings and emotions. This kind of meditation can be used in school to make students and teachers aware of how their daily experiences of school life are affecting their state of mind and, hopefully, to calm their reactions and thoughts throughout the rest of the school day.

Another popular form of meditation focuses on compassion, which endeavours to cultivate compassionate thoughts and feelings for other people, especially for people students might not like or know. The aim here is to create better community cohesion among the school population.

Although both types of meditation have their roots in Indian religions, there are now countless scientific studies demonstrating their benefits. For example, research by academics at Stanford University found that people practicing mindfulness meditation valued calmness in their day-to-day lives more than those who did not.

Moreover, there are now respectable scientific studies suggestingmeditation can lead to people living longer and healthier lives with less risk of heart attacks and even less chances of getting colds.

In the context of educational psychology, a number of studies have found that meditation can improve wellbeing and develop empathy skills. For example, studies lead by Shauna L Shapiro of Santa Clara Universityhave found that awareness of one’s state of mind can improve coping strategies for dealing with the stress of everyday life, which may benefit students under pressure to attain high grades or teachers targeting ever higher pupil targets. In relation to compassion, the University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA) David S. Black and colleagues found empirical evidence that meditation leads to reduced misbehaviour and aggression among children and adolescents.

Meditation, therefore, can be employed to tackle a myriad of problems in school, including poor student attainment and staff fatigue. Manyschoolsincluding my own, are establishing a ‘quiet time’ period during the school day of 10 to 15 minutes when students sit quietly to meditate, reflect on what has happened that day or simply rest.

This has been done through the establishment of a lunchtime Zen club run by a colleague of mine, Dilraj Paul. Students were initially reluctant to attend and the sessions were more popular with staff. However, there has been a gradual accumulation of curious year 7s, as well as students from the school’s aspiration and achievement group (formerly known as gifted and talented).

Sessions do not approach meditation in any theoretical way and guidance is kept to a minimum. Those present start their meditation by taking a deep breath and are then encouraged to clear their minds by focusing on their breathing or the gentle background music. However, if thoughts occur or their minds wonder, they are told to accept this and simply be aware of what they are thinking of. Of course, many of them turn up purely to escape the noise, hustle and bustle of a secondary school day. The peace is appreciated, especially by teachers. One commented that Zen club was: “A brilliant way to feel chilled out for period five.”

Although meditation is not for everyone and can seem bizarre and pointless to many, its use in schools is now being championed by academics and educational charities, such as those set up by Goldie Hawn and George Lucas. In addition, the internet offers a wide range of resources documenting the benefits of meditation in schools, includingprevious blogs on this site, as well as practical guidance on how to set up classes. It really is worth trying.

Daily inspiring text messages fail to inspire US students to perform better

Teenage girl sending text message

A groundbreaking experiment that bombarded US high school students with inspiring text messages was found to be a success on all counts except one: it made no difference to how the students performed in school.

Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University, helped establish the experiment involving nearly 2,000 pupils at state schools in Oklahoma City.

The students were given free mobile phones in return for receiving daily texts written by a trend-setting advertising agency, encouraging them to stay in school and study for exams.

Many of the students correctly answered quiz questions showing they had paid attention to the messages – but the nine-month-long randomised field study failed to find any improvement in the students’ academic results or attendance.

Fryer concluded that while the daily diet of texts changed pupils’ views about the value of education and caused them to say they were working harder in school, “there was no measurable increase in educational attainment or achievement”.

The aim of the study was “to assess whether students better understood the link between human capital and outcomes”, Fryer wrote in a working paper just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The texts were sent at 6pm each day, including weekends – calculated as the best time to reach the sixth and seventh grade students, aged 12-13.

Some pupils could earn additional airtime credits by reading books and responding to questions.

The messages were crafted with the aid of Droga5 – an award-winning New York agency that handles the US account of Newcastle Brown Ale – and veered between the motivating and the prosaic.

“People don’t look down on someone for being too educated,” stated one text, while another warned: “High school dropouts are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as college graduates.”

As to why the study failed to improve academic outcomes, Fryer suggested it could be because the students only had a vague idea how to increase their achievement once they had been motivated.

“In this scenario … students put in more effort, but the effort was not effective at producing test scores given their lack of knowledge of how to translate effort into output,” Fryer said.