Located in the heart of the Berkshire countryside, Beech Lodge School is a school with a difference. Now celebrating its 10th Anniversary year, it was founded in 2013 by Daniela Shanly, who was struggling to find a school to meet the educational needs of her adopted son.
It had become clear to her that the complex social and emotional difficulties of care-experienced children were being misunderstood or even overlooked in schools. There was a gap in the market, and a demand for a school that specialised in educating children who had experienced devastating trauma and loss which impacted on their lives and schooling.
“Originally set in a small hastily converted barn, the school opened with only five pupils.”
Driven by a shared vision to provide an alternative approach to education, Daniela teamed up with Emma Barklem and Lucy Barnes. Together they set about creating this ground breaking, not-for-profit school, specifically designed to provide a more nurturing and empathic approach for children. The aim was to maximise their educational potential, well-being and become effective and valued members of society.
Originally set in a small hastily converted barn, the school opened with only five pupils including Daniela’s son. A decade later, it occupies extensive grounds with spacious, purpose-built buildings and state-of-the-art facilities for its 90 plus pupils.
What they have built and achieved in a decade has been an innovative, progressive, and extraordinary school which has enriched the lives of hundreds of children and their care givers’ lives.
“A decade ago, when we opened the doors of our hastily converted barn to our first five special pupils — Dom, Max, Chelsea, Phoebe and Tom — we certainly could not have envisioned what a flourishing, beautiful, inspirational community Beech Lodge would become,” says Daniela.
“Children often arrive at the school, battered by previous school experience.”
Beech Lodge thinks differently about children who think differently. Its therapeutic and compassionate approach underpinned by an understanding of child development and attachment theory, offers an individually tailored learning environment for children with social and emotional and learning difficulties aged 7-18.
Children often arrive at the school, battered by previous school experience, confused, misunderstood and totally disengaged with schooling. The school excels at working with these children, who require a lot of nurturing, over-learning and patience.
It offers access to many therapeutic interventions including occupational, speech and play therapy, as well as all the educational tools they will need to achieve their greatest potential.
There is a bespoke, engaging and flexible curriculum tailored to meet individual needs and academic ability and children have the opportunity to study for a full range of GCSEs or equivalent qualifications.
Class sizes, as would be expected, are kept small with a high adult ratio and have specialist teaching to support any specific literacy and numeracy difficulties. The therapeutic benefits of engaging with nature and staying active are also firmly embedded in the school week.
There is lots of outdoor learning, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme and lots of activities including yoga, boxing, climbing, orienteering, art and music. “It’s this combination of practical and academic learning as well as building relationships that create such a special learning environment,” says Dan Gillespie, the head.
Emphasis is placed on fostering independence and developing key life skills to successfully transition to the next stage, whether this is into further education, or the workplace. This includes “The Apprenticeshop” — a pop-up shop based in Maidenhead. This is an important part of the school’s careers programme, offering work experience in the retail industry and giving them important life skills as they graduate.
Beech Lodge School challenges the outdated “norms” of what a school should look like. Not only has each area of the school been specifically curated to be calm in order to reduce sensory overload, but it has also been designed to be inspirational and playful.
“The library is set in ‘Granny’s Living room’ propped with plaid armchairs.”
The entrance hall is filled with stylish sofas and the hat stand is propped with lots of unique head wear, signalling that each child is valued and accepted as an individual. The library is set in “Granny’s Living room” propped with plaid armchairs, and there is a 50’s style American diner, complete with car, which was designed by the children and doubles up as an eating/meeting area.
A well-equipped outside DT area and boutique kitchen are just two other areas that provide the children with modern but cosy facilities. Developing and modelling positive relationships is at the heart of what they do.
There is no school uniform, teachers dress in casual clothes and are all very approachable and informal whilst maintaining authority at all times. Staff dogs patter around looking for affection, and an enormous white rabbit called Hedwig is the beloved school pet.
The result is a colourful and joyful environment where the whole community appears content and at home.
“Each pupil is taught individually because they all have their own challenges, abilities and dreams,” says Lucy Barnes, the principal.
“An enormous white rabbit called Hedwig is the beloved school pet.”
The focus on emotional wellbeing and the importance of relationships is embedded throughout the whole school community. The creation of the sense of belonging is everyone’s responsibility, from the principal teachers to cleaners. Outstanding staff who are all passionate about putting nurture at the heart of school experience are the key to the schools’ success and happiness.
Love, patience and nurture are the critical success factor and run through every strand of the school experience. Each and every child is valued, encouraged to value others and supported though the day to make positive choices. The future is exciting as the school goes from strength to strength and is actively looking to expand and build more schools. Watch this space.