Community & Development, My working life - Claire Thomas (Head of therapy, specialist SLT)

Community & Development, My working life - Claire Thomas (Head of therapy, specialist SLT)

I was a year and a half into working as head of therapy at a specialist
dyslexia school in Somerset when the pandemic hit. Shortly after the
first lockdown began, we were informed that the school would be shutting due
to insolvency.

My first thought was for the students who were now without education and their support network. Then I had a mad dash to set up remote private therapy
for my students, while trying to figure out what my next career steps would be.

About a week after the school shut, I received a call from an old colleague, Bradley Middleton. “Hello Claire,” he said jauntily, “I’m setting up a school and wondered if you would be the head of therapy”. Once I’d stopped laughing, he explained that he was serious. I was astounded – who sets up a school during a pandemic?

A week later Bradley had assembled an awesome team and we started having daily briefings about what needed to be done. ‘Fantasy school’, as it came to be known, came out of the idea that we had to do good by these kids who had lost everything.

It quickly became more than that as we saw the opportunity to create something truly unique and specialist.

We spent the first lockdown meeting virtually and deciding what our school would look like. As the head of therapy, I supported admissions, consultations and preparations for special educational needs and disability (SEND) tribunals. I had to create a therapy department, accumulating ideas from systems I previously used and working to embed speech and language therapy and occupational therapy within the curriculum. Once the fi rst lockdown was over, we managed to venture out and visit the new school site, a beautiful 19th century manor house with views over the Somerset Levels.

In July we had our first Ofsted visit and were unsuccessful. At the time we didn’t know that 90% of new schools fail their first visit, so it felt gutting.

That Friday we had a staff meeting and were told we could leave the project if we wanted to. It is a testament to our team that everyone said they wanted to stay on and try again. The drive throughout had been the kids we were working to support.

We couldn’t just stop the moment we had a setback. By November, Ofsted had visited again and, in the words of our head teacher, Caroline Cook, we “smashed it”. Our fantasy school became a reality in January 2021 with 24 students. In September 2021 we returned from the summer break with 51 students, and capacity for 65.

Surprisingly, it was the pandemic that made all this possible. Being dyslexic myself, it never occurred to me that I would set up a specialist dyslexia school and yet this is the most rewarding thing that I’ve done in my career so far.