Wellbeing Hub: Exemplification of Effective Practice

Hill Croft School

The following information and resources, including photos and videos, are from Hill Croft School, Newtownabbey, and set out how staff wellbeing has been prioritised over a three-year period.

Watch staff talking about how this initiative has impacted wellbeing in the school:

Staff Wellbeing

In Hill Croft School, staff wellbeing is of high priority and is reflected in our ‘Statements of Commitment’ which are for everyone in our school community – pupils, staff, and parents.

Our ‘Statements of Commitment.’

Together, we are building a school where everyone can say:

  • I am part of Hill Croft School, I fit in here. We all look after each other.
  • I am safe in Hill Croft School; it is a happy place to be.
  • There is no-one else just like me. Everyone can help me to learn.
  • We know what I have to learn, we know how I like to learn best, it is fun.
  • What I have to say is very important, I can always take part.
  • I am always learning new skills that will help me at home, when I go out and when I leave school.

In 2017–2018, because of a challenging year and low staff morale, staff wellbeing was further developed as a whole school initiative and strategically planned for over a three-year period as part of the school development plan. Significant time, funding and training were invested in the initiative – a Core Wellbeing Team was established who led and managed the initiative, including managing the initiative through the Covid-19 pandemic, and many opportunities were provided to develop staff wellbeing which had a positive impact on the staff team and morale, and the pupils in their care.

Find out more about how staff wellbeing was addressed in our school over the past three years: the funding and training provided, the opportunities to develop staff wellbeing, the impact on staff, pupils and the wider community, and where we go from here.

Introduction and School Context

Hill Croft School is a school for pupils with severe learning difficulties, situated in Newtownabbey. There are currently 247 pupils ranging from 3–19 years. There are 31 classes with 39 permanent teachers (including both full and part-time), 90 learning support assistants and a range of support staff including kitchen staff, transport staff, and cleaning staff to specify a few.

A number of outside agencies work alongside Hill Croft. Some of these include Allied Health Professionals such as Speech and Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists, and Social Workers. Other agencies that work alongside our school include Day Opportunities Officers, Belfast Metropolitan College, North Regional College, Access Employment Limited, Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS), Adult Centres (specifically Drumross, Larne and The Hawthorns), Health & Social Care Team (Belfast & Northern), Uplift, Inspire Wellbeing, Recharge, and Barnardo’s (school counsellor).

We have an active Parent Teacher Association who fundraise for our pupils on a regular basis. We have also built important relationships within the community – with businesses and other agencies who continue to work alongside and support us, including Tescos, Ashers, the Co-op and many other local businesses.

Staff Wellbeing: The Rationale

After a difficult year in 2017/2018, when staff morale was low, the Principal reached out to NICHS to avail of their ‘Work Well, Live Well’ health and wellbeing support programme. As a forward-thinking school, as well as valuing the huge importance of staff, the Principal and Leadership Team decided to prioritise this area as part of the School Development Plan.

Staff Emotional Health and Wellbeing is one of the eight key principles of CCEA’s guidance on developing a whole-child, whole-school, whole-community approach to Emotional Health and Wellbeing (EHWB). Research shows that increased staff wellbeing leads to improved performance and increased pupil wellbeing and happiness, and we were keen to support the wellbeing of our staff, pupils, and wider community.

The first step was to complete a whole-school baselining exercise. A whole-school wellbeing audit was conducted, and involved all staff, pupils, and their families. The audit was completed using Survey Monkey and the evaluation of outcomes indicated that all staff would welcome some improvements in this area. This led to the Hill Croft School Well Team Three-Year Development Plan, of which staff wellbeing was a key element.

One of the first stages of the action plan was to set up a Core Wellbeing Team comprising four members of staff, chosen as a result of an expression of interest survey issued to all staff. The Core Wellbeing Team was made up of one teacher, one full-time classroom assistant, and two part-time classroom assistants/part-time family workers.

Next steps included applying for funding and training:

  • The school applied to be part of NICHS wellbeing training scheme for organisations. Once accepted, the four members of the Core Wellbeing Team took part in NICHS’s ‘well training.’
  • Hill Croft was able to secure funding from Education’s Authority’s ‘Make Life Better’ initiative and ‘Impact NI level 2’.

With funding secured, some key areas were developed:

  • Training was given to the Core Wellbeing Team with each member achieving the Level 2 Award in First Aid for Mental Health Qualification accredited by the First Aid Awards Ltd. (FAA). Training included Mental Health First Aid Training, Bereavement Training, Smoking Cessation Awareness, Suicide Awareness, and Stress Management Training.
  • Hill Croft School Mental Health and Wellbeing Policy was developed.
  • A Family Worker was employed to support families of our pupils.
  • Staff Induction took place for all new members of staff, helping to support them in their new roles and providing important and useful information (this is ongoing for new members of staff).
  • A buddy system was put in place for new staff which has been increasingly important, as the school has continued to expand over the past three years.
  • A number of opportunities were provided for staff to support their physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
  • As a school, we achieved ‘Take 5, Level 1’ which focuses on five key areas that help protect and encourage good mental health: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give. As a school community we took part in various activities focusing on the five key areas. One initiative that covered all five steps was our Knitted Christmas Tree. During this initiative, we ‘connected together,’ ‘kept our minds and hands active,’ ‘learned new skills,’ ‘gave our time to make the squares and decorations,’ and, once completed, we ‘took notice of our beautiful work.’ Our efforts of embedding the ‘Take 5’ culture into our school were commended by the local Newtownabbey Borough Council and we were awarded the ‘North Star Award’ entitled ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ in December 2021. We achieved this for developing the Knitted Christmas Tree and other additional community activities: we all worked together, festively decorating every classroom door, and transforming the school office into a gingerbread house. This award also included recognition of our in-class performances, drive-through Santa experience, and a ‘12 Days of Christmas’ competition. View photographs of Knitted Christmast Tree and Spirit of Christmas Awards.

Opportunities to develop Staff Wellbeing

Staff benefitted from a wide range of opportunities that supported their physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing, including:

  • Free health checks, available to all staff through the NICHS. The checks included checking height, weight, blood pressure, and giving staff an overview of how they could improve their health.
  • Recharge workshops: a wide range of workshops/courses were provided such as Aromatherapy, Mindfulness, Embroidery, Facials, Crochet and Cookery.
  • An in-school Christmas Dinner, provided for free for all staff.
  • A post-pandemic, whole-school staff celebration (wellbeing event) which was held in June 2022 to thank staff for all their hard work, to give them a treat as well as a chance to connect and spend time together. This included enjoying treats from an ice-cream van, a Popcorn machine, and a non-alcoholic drinks cart. View photographs of staff celebration event.
  • Six-weekly classes of Pilates, Yoga and Zumba were offered to staff.
  • A Staff Step Challenge: on a weekly basis staff recorded their steps, and prizes were given for those with the greatest number of steps.
  • A Staff Walking Group: the group met on a weekly basis after school.
  • A Corporate Gym Discount, available to staff for the local council leisure centres.
  • In September 2022, after staff ‘Bubble training’, another whole-school event was held for staff and their children. This included ‘Bubble’ demonstrations for the staff’s children in the Junior Playground where the children could take part in making bubbles, play on the playground equipment, and enjoy an ice-cream from the ice-cream van. Staff had an opportunity to spend time together, get to know the children of their colleagues, and spend some time relaxing in the midst of a very busy September. View photographs of 'Bubble' event.

Staff Wellbeing: Monitoring and Evaluating Progress

Monitoring and evaluating the progress and impact of the staff wellbeing developments was integral to the three-year plan from the outset – the Core Wellbeing Team met half-termly to discuss, monitor and review what was taking place within school.

The Covid-19 pandemic had an impact on this strategy, and many of the original plans had to be altered or cancelled. For example, numbers attending the six-weekly Pilates, Yoga and Zumba classes were reduced to align with social distancing measures. Other activities which could not take place included meetings of the ‘Play Dates’ group which provides opportunities for parents to bring their children into school, and the ‘Parent Group’ which was set up to allow parents to meet, take part in activities, and support each other. The Core Wellbeing Team continued to be available throughout the pandemic, helping to signpost staff to appropriate resources or agencies for support.

Staff Wellbeing: The Impact of the Initiative

The Core Wellbeing Team have reported that this initiative has a positive impact on staff and pupils. Each team member, being fully committed to supporting their colleagues, has clearly communicated to staff that their main job is to be available, to provide a listening ear, to signpost towards more support if relevant, and to check in if appropriate, as well as organising events and activities to boost staff morale and community spirit.

Having a Core Wellbeing Team means that there is always a listening ear available, and it can be easier for some staff members to approach a Core Wellbeing Team member to discuss issues rather than going to their Head of Department or to a member of Senior Management. If appropriate, the wellbeing team member is then able to pass on concerns or issues to the appropriate Senior Leader. In summary, the Core Wellbeing Team members feel that supporting staff is, to quote one member, ‘so much better with a wellbeing team, rather than without.

Providing events that bring staff together leads to a stronger sense of community and enables staff to build upon and develop new friendships with their colleagues. This then has a positive impact on pupils, as staff will feel more able to call on their colleagues for appropriate support when working with their pupils. This support is vital when working in an SLD setting. We all need to remember that seeking support is a sign of ‘professional strength.’

By having a range of activities, staff had opportunities to take part in something that was of interest to them, but without any pressure to attend. Staff were able to develop new skills, and friendships were strengthened, or developed through the different activities. The activities provided a common ground to form new friendships.

Below are some direct quotes from staff highlighting the benefits of having a Core Wellbeing Team and the Staff Wellbeing Initiative.

I have always loved every aspect of my job at Hill Croft. The focus on staff wellbeing is something that doesn’t go unnoticed. There have been so many good initiatives rolled out over the years, but two that stand out for me were the Shane Martin wellbeing webinars and the staff health checks. Initiatives like these highlight our school’s response to both our physical and mental health.

- Curtis Marshall, Learning Support Assistant (LSA)

The large celebrations, especially post-Covid, were so widely appreciated after spending so much time apart and physically removed from others. There was a real buzz just being back together.

- Melissa Matbouli, Teacher & Core Wellbeing Team Member

Having a core team means there’s always someone to talk to and it’s very beneficial.

- Edith Boyd, LSA

Personally, I found the wellbeing initiative very helpful. It is good to know there is someone trustworthy to talk to if you need it. I loved the manicure kit, and all the products were beautiful, and it was nice just to get to pamper yourself.

- Nikki Irwin, LSA

I found a few of the wellbeing initiatives great. I thoroughly enjoyed the sessions that were organised and included learning how to give myself a facial. It almost forced me into taking some time for just myself which is rare as a busy mum of two. I also feel the baskets in the bathroom in work are fantastic and I have used a couple of items from them.

- Leeann Armstrong, Teacher

The recharge facial workshop was lovely. I liked that my daughters and my mum could join in too for a wee family treat.

- Gillian Cromie, Teacher & Head of Junior School

I think we have been very fortunate to have had a Principal who put this to the forefront of her plans. She has put the team together to let them run with this I know many schools have not had this provision – even though they had the same funding. I have engaged with the Pilates, picked up some sewing for a friend, and enjoyed an aromatherapy evening. I also did the relaxation to help with my sleep pattern! It’s been a super programme of activities and I hope many of them will continue as we have ‘one precious life’.

- Sylvia Cardwell, Teacher

Additional successes and impact of the wellbeing initiative are the school’s achievement of ‘Take 5 Level 2’ accredited status and the Attachment and Trauma Sensitive Schools Award (ATSSA).

‘Take 5 Level 2’ focuses on five key areas that help protect and encourage good mental health for everyone:

  1. Be Active
  2. Give
  3. Connect
  4. Keep Learning
  5. Take Notice

Our school achieved both the ATSSA Bronze and Silver Awards during the Covid-19 pandemic years. All staff received training which gives strategies and support for managing difficult situations. As part of the award, our school has been shown to provide ‘Quality staff care and emotional support for all staff to protect staff mental health and wellbeing’ (Attachment and Trauma Sensitive Schools Award Criteria). The training and support provided staff with time to reflect on their own personal needs, history, and triggers, and encouraged them to use open language and communication with their colleagues. Through this, staff are better equipped to protect their own mental health and to help support their colleagues and this in turn results in a positive impact on the pupils in the school.

In conclusion, it is evident that the overwhelming response and impact of the Staff Wellbeing Initiative is positive – staff know and appreciate that there is always a friendly, trustworthy, and listening ear available if they ever need to talk.

As we all know, when staff feel looked after, safe, valued, appreciated, and listened to, the impact on them is that they are happy in their workplace and feel confident in delivering their main purpose for being in school: to meet the individualised needs of the pupils in their care.

The result of this is unquestionably positive on the pupils who will be receiving the best they can get as the confident team of professionals around them are better equipped to teach, support and care for them when they themselves have their wellbeing needs met in the workplace.

Staff Wellbeing: Next Steps

As a school we are nearing the end of our original three-year action plan. The Core Wellbeing Team has monitored and is currently formally evaluating the three-year initiative – they will conduct a second survey of staff, pupils, and parents to ascertain what improvements have been made, what the impact has been, and to plan for further developments.

Immediate next steps include:

  • having ‘The Action Cancer Big Red Bus’ on site to provide health checks for staff; and
  • completing the final stages of becoming a ‘Take 5’ Level 3 Accredited school, which will then allow the staff and parent ambassadors to meet to plan further staff wellbeing.

Staff and Whole Community Wellbeing Initiative