Fighting for better outcomes

Fighting for better outcomes
Date15th Nov 2021AuthorSarah HoppCategoriesStudent Life

Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) is an important area of focus in education and for those students with Education Health and Care Plans in particular, and one that has only become more important in the last two years. The latest Covid-19 Mental Health and Well-being Surveillance Report (2021)1 published by Public Health England states that there was an acute increase in behavioural, emotional and attentional difficulties in children and young adults aged 16-20 after returning to school or college post-lockdown. The Social, Emotional and Mental Health Curriculum for students with SEND (mainly Autism, ADHD and SpLD) at SFX is therefore a vital element in the recovery and continuing education of our students. 

The aim of the curriculum at the college is to help students develop communication, confidence, self-esteem, empathy and compassion, whilst overcoming stereotypes and surmounting barriers such as racism and the misconceptions that contribute to unconscious bias. It provides real-world opportunities to implement strategies and skills established in 1:1 specialist ASD/ADHD or speech and language therapy in a generalised setting. The curriculum includes self-defence, public service, first aid courses, enrichment classes, trips, CBT, art therapy, and mindfulness. Each trip has a theme, running through communication, anxiety, confidence, compassion, and independence, and culminating in a residential week in a national park in the Czech Republic.  Day trips include public speaking at parliament; meeting soldiers at Buckingham Palace; escape rooms; airsoft/paintballing; visits to homeless shelters. We also offer work experience for innovative career opportunities, recognising the creative and divergent thinking skills of students with SpLDs, and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) self-defence trips with professional fighters/celebrities. These trips are central to the programme, which teaches the following skills and benefits:

  • Self-defence practice
  • Social skills/communication development
  • Self-awareness, self-acceptance and empowerment
  • Individual growth at one’s own pace as well as team-building
  • Help with co-ordination
  • Structure
  • A safe environment to expend energy
  • An accepting and positive environment that promotes mutual respect
  • Development of self-discipline, boundary awareness, and concentration

Our curriculum gives the students the ability to protect their own lives through self-defence and protect the lives of others through the first aid course, which includes CPR. The residential trip, named ‘independence week’, to the Czech Republic includes a variety of sporting and cultural activities: abseiling, canoeing, visits to historical monuments, and liaison with Czech student peers in an FE setting. Enrichment classes include games and quizzes such as pool, table tennis and air hockey. The games table is a central feature of the classroom and is part of the dynamic and empowering classroom learning environment that we have designed and developed to enhance the SEMH curriculum and achieve academic, social and emotional flourishing. 

Positive results in the department have been seen via improvement in Pearson’s Self-Image inventory scores, which measure self-esteem, and a significant improvement in academic grades since the SEMH curriculum began. In the academic year 2021-22, 100% of the students receiving SEMH curriculum support at the college either progressed to university or employment. Additionally, student and parent feedback in both verbal and written form about the SEMH curriculum and the difference it has made to all aspects of students’ lives has been outstanding and has been recorded in departmental and local authority reports. Returning students, after having been at university for a year, have stated that the experiences and skills developed whilst following the SEMH curriculum gave them the confidence that they needed to survive socially and emotionally at university and that they felt that this had a direct impact on the success of their studies at university. The programme has also been externally validated via inspection, peer group visits from other schools, colleges, and services, and presentations at Kingston University and the Pan-London SENDCo network. Empirical studies carried out by California State University in the US and at universities in Iran and the UK regarding the benefits of MMA to students with autism/ADHD have similar findings, as published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Successful implementation of the curriculum has also been evidence-based, with information gathered from frequent planning meetings, networking with external agencies via social media and other methods, monitoring, reviews of activities and trips, student feedback, observations, risk assessments to ensure health and safety and Covid 19 compliance, and reporting to governors and senior leaders. Building on our success so far and the feedback from these sources, especially students, our aim is to continue to develop the curriculum in directions of student interest so that they feel in control of their learning experience, but always with the fundamental tenet in mind that the curriculum is a mutual learning journey of shared trust, empathy and compassion between students and teachers, some of whom are neurodivergent themselves.

1 Public Health England (2021) Covid-19 Mental Health and Well-Being Surveillance Report. Available at: (Last accessed: 1st November 2021).

Sarah Hopp is Head of ALS at St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College in London. Earlier this year, her team won the SFCA Enrichment and Employability for their work. This is the latest in a series of blogs from the award winners explaining how they achieved their success.

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