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Dave Whitaker on how to create and use ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ in your School


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Ollie FrithThis week, Ollie Frith spoke to Dave Whitaker, Executive Head at Springwell Special Academy in Barnsley regarding ‘unconditional positive regard’.

Unconditional positive regard for students

This is something which has been borrowed from the counselling and therapeutic areas. It’s a metaphor, an ethos or a set of values – it should be something you see and feel as you walk round the building. It’s all about being authentic, showing that you really do believe in the children.

Dave points out that people pay lip service to their value statements – it isn’t borne out every day in school.

David Whitaker
David Whitaker

Authentic care

This is a phrase coined by some visiting headteachers and Dave has now adopted it. It led him to understand some deep truths about his school and why it succeeds:

“The adults believe in the children and the children believe they believe in them.”


When the children you work with have already had every punishment imaginable and it’s not worked, why continue punishment? A lot of children just factor whatever punishment they are given into their lives and carry on in exactly the same way. Some children who are punished once will never repeat the misbehaviour – it’s to do with their upbringing and other factors but for the majority of repeat offenders it’s clear that punishment never works.

Do mainstream schools exclude too many children?

Dave believes they do but he also has a huge amount of sympathy for mainstream heads who are trying to meet accountability measures.

The accountability and inclusion agendas don’t match.

So the easiest way to get fast track improvement in a mainstream school is to get rid of a number of kids and change the cohort. So heads need to be brave, particularly if the school down the road is excluding to change cohorts.

What advice do you give teachers on a regular basis?

One of the great assets Special Schools have is time so Dave asks teachers to have patience – to work at the relationships they have with the children. Then they can plan well. You can’t leave things to chance when you work with children with challenging behaviours. Dave supports his teachers to become specialists – he doesn’t expect them to be specialists on day 1.

There is a mix of formal training required to work with these children combined with on-the-job development, great mentoring and working with a great team. Dave says it’s OK to get it wrong as long as you learn for it.

How to value your staff

  • Staff get paid more to work in Dave’s school – and are expected to go the extra mile
  • There is a staff well-being group – in which money is invested for social activities, CPD, free meals and tea and coffee for staff etc.


Reading interventions are amongst the most important for the children in Dave’s school. Everybody in the school reads every single day which has a huge knock-on effect across the curriculum. Added to this, a lot of time and money is spent on developing great teachers and support staff.

Hear much more detail on the episode!

Dave on Twitter

Springfield Learning Community

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(Creative Commons Sound clip by Johnny Pixel Productions, Inc. –

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