I first met Nicola Parker, Billing Brook’s Literacy Coordinator and Assistant Head teacher, at last year’s Education Show. Almost twelve months on and the school has become a passionate advocate of our handwriting scheme, which is something I’m obviously absolutely thrilled about so I wanted to share their enthusiasm with you.
If you’re not familiar with the school, let me introduce you. Billing Brook School is an all age special needs school for pupils aged 3-18. The 220 pupils who attend the school will have an ECHP or Statement of SEN and varying degrees of learning difficulties and disabilities. A large percentage of pupils have Autism but there are also pupils with global developmental delay, Downs syndrome, ADHD and Speech and language difficulties. Many of the children have physical difficulties as well, ranging from hypermobility to severe muscle difficulties impacting on their gross and fine motor skills.
The school has been running Start-Bee’s Handwriting Scheme for Schools for over six months now and I caught up with Nicola recently at a teach-meet event where Nicola shared with other Literacy Leads and Year heads in the Northampton area why Billing Brook just loves Start-Bee.
We began our conversation with me asking Nicola about the importance of handwriting in her school.
“At Billing brook handwriting and fine motor skill development has always been high on our list of priorities. We recognise the need for pupils to obtain these skills early on so that they become more independent learners and can access the world of work. For many of our pupils, fine motor skills is an area which is pertinent to their development and is often stated in their statement of SEN or EHCP as an area for focus. With the increased emphasis on handwriting from the Department of Education we needed to reform some of the strategies we were using in school as well as develop links with some more intervention programmes, like Start-Bee, which would be effective in supporting our pupils.”
We then went on to discuss the problems and demands of teaching handwriting to children with learning difficulties.
“With so many pupils having a range of difficulties and issues when it comes to not only handwriting but their learning, there is a need to personalise each intervention or support being given to the pupil. One of the other issues was the way in which we tracked the development of their skills set. Billing brook has a baseline fine motor skill assessment which each pupil is assessed in throughout the year, but it did not always allow staff to identify areas of difficulty that the Start Bee handwriting assessment does. Teaching handwriting also needs to be done in the correct order and with the correct materials. Having access to resources and the process in which children learn to write is something which has been developed through the Literacy curriculum and training in school, considering the steps before writing and the development of pencil control.
“For many, the main problem with mastering handwriting has been the physical difficulties involved in as well as the composition of their writing. Having a physical difficulty means that much more effort and time is spent on the art of writing, and it then becomes a long and frustrating task. So many of our pupils have so much to say, and lots of brilliant ideas, but the physical act of writing is still developing and this limits their ability to get their ideas down on paper without the support of adults.”
When I first went to Billing Brook school I used my time there to demonstrate, in one of the school’s youngest classes, the strategies and the format of our lessons. Nicola and her team could see instantly that Start-Bee would be very supportive of many of the strategies already in place. Best of all, the use of technology and the structure of the lessons was something the children responded particularly well to. When delivering the lesson I could see the pupils were completely engaged. But is that still the case now?
“Very much so. Handwriting schemes which are visual and kinaesthetic with repetition, like Start-Bee, work really well with our pupils and are key to their development. The pupils enjoy the routine of the sessions, they love the interactive elements which involve the lightboxes and they understand the process that they will go through each session, it’s an approach that particularly works well with children who have special educational needs.
The emphasis on the pencil grip has really helped to support many of our pupils. Being able to use the correct writing tools in class throughout the curriculum such as the handwriting pencils, and ‘rocket’ pencils for those who need more support, means that there is a transference of skills to their wider learning. Holding the pencil in the correct manner as well as involving the use of both hands, crossing the midline and developing coordination has all positively impacted on the handwriting of those using Start-Bee.”
I ended our conversation by asking Nicola, overall, what impact Start-Bee has had on her pupils.
“Start-Bee has created engagement and enjoyment in writing amongst all of our pupils. For many of the younger children it has provided support for their fine motor skills and handwriting as well as enabled them to develop approaches to letter writing and writing their name. For some of the older pupils it has quickly allowed gaps in learning to be identified and supported. Start-Bee has taught us so much more about handwriting and has allowed staff to recognise the need to use specialist tools such as using triangular pencils and adopting both the correct grip and posture when supporting pupils in their writing. Furthermore, with all the lessons and lesson preparation done for us, every teacher is freed-up to support the children, offering individual assistance where and when it’s needed, as they learn this core, life-skill of writing.”
On a personal note, it is a joy to see Nicola’s pupils, who find learning difficult in the first place, make those marks, form those letters and write their names unaided. I’m looking forward to returning in September to see the progress the pupils continue to make at Billing Brook School. Keep up the good work!
You can watch the interview here.