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How to be a great leader in a special school – PP74

The topic of the week is Jarlath O’Brien on Special leadership.


Jarlath O’Brien joins us this week to talk about his role as a Special school headteacher at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey.

Jarlath is a physics graduate and has always loved working with teen-aged learners. After working in a variety of settings he took a post to work with learners with emotional and behavioural difficulties. He was attracted to working with the most vulnerable in society and has been at Carwarden House as headteacher for four years.

jarlathWhat are the essential elements of an MLD school?

Jarlath used to take it for granted that all the learners he dealt with were ‘walkers, talkers, readers and writers’. It came as a shock to him to realise that there are children out there who cannot do one of these – or all of them. The normal route of leaving school, getting a job and living by themselves is not always what happens for all.

There has to be a clear explicit focus on helping the students at Carwarden House to live and work independently. The curriculum has to be vocationally focused with a heavy presence in the workplace.

Society doesn’t expect our students to live and work independently – society expects absolutely nothing from our students.When the students are older, the standard secondary curriculum is augmented with a mandatory vocational curriculum. All Yr 10/11 and sixth form learners attend a local FE college and have work experience as well.

What would Jarlath like politicians to understand about Special school students?

He would like politicians to realise that his students actually exist. He has seen many policies which prove to him that his students are not considered. When they talk about ‘all year 6 pupils’ or all secondary pupils, they don’t mean it. It’s OK to acknowledge that some policies don’t include all students because they have a life-limiting condition or multiple learning difficulties. The answer isn’t to say that the policy doesn’t apply to Special schools because, for example, there are some learners in Special schools who are academically very able. Rather, Jarlath believes that approaches could include separate judgements on SEN in the Ofsted framework.

What’s the most joyful thing about leading your school?

The way in which all the staff and students work together every day is a joy. Staff are experts in building relationships and Jarlath sees the pay off of that trust every day. Also, Jarlath feels he has the ability to protect the school from things like Ofsted:

People say that’s OK if you are already a successful school but Jarlath also used this approach in a school which required improvement.

Behaviour in a Special school

Jarlath believes this is based on the quality of relationships all adults in the school have with the learners. Jarlath has had to remove barriers to this which were present when he joined the school:


  • A focus on the negative – a small thing which went wrong became the focus for the whole day
  • Prediction of failure – self-fulfilling prophecies which affect the mindset and therefore what happens in a classroom


Now adults are unerringly positive and treat every day as a new day.

All negative behaviour is a form of communication – the staff at Jarlath’s school are experts at intervening early and not letting situations escalate.

What would we notice about your school?

The students are very articulate and confident but sometimes they make social faux-pas. They are allowed the space to get things wrong because they need to learn the right ways to interact.

One person who visited the school was Michael Gove. Jarlath was very impressed with how he interacted with the students rather than talking to the adults.

What would you like to change the most about how Special schools are viewed?

Jarlath reiterates that this is about stopping Special schools being invisible. The responsibility of changing this rests with the staff in Special schools. This means offering training to mainstream schools and building relationships. This is why Jarlath and his students are attending the London Festival of Education soon. Carwarden House is also part of Wellington Teaching School Alliance which Jarlath thinks is very important.


Pivotal Podcast Pocketbooks

PEpocketbook-BUNDLE2Newly-created Pivotal Podcast Pocketbooks are now available from Amazon including one on Restorative Practice. There will be a huge range of Pocketbooks from Pivotal Education, starting with the edited transcripts of some of the most popular episodes of the podcast.

The idea of releasing written versions of episodes came from listeners who wanted to be able to make notes and use the content in different ways. If you would like a particular episode to be converted into an ebook, please let us know!

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