Jenny McConnell, Acting Principal at I CAN’s Dawn House School, speaks to us about her new role
I joined I CAN’s Dawn House Specialist School 23 years ago as a speech and language therapist and today, I have the opportunity to lead the school as Acting Principal. This is an amazing and exciting opportunity for me personally but also marks a milestone for I CAN as I am their first speech and language therapist to be appointed to a school principal role!
Dawn House School is unique and caters for young people with a range of complex speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). I am so proud to be leading a fantastic, dedicated and highly skilled team. In our work, staff need to be forward thinking and innovative, working closely together to engage our pupils in learning and ensuring they make fantastic progress at school and in residential care.
In my time at Dawn House, I have worked across different roles including speech and language therapy co-ordinator (2000), Head of Therapy (2010) and Vice Principal (2016) but the joy of working at this school is that no two days are the same. The young people in our care make amazing progress, you can see them grow to reach their full potential and increase their independence.
One perfect example is Connor O’Neill who was recently highly commended at the national Shine a Light Awards earlier this month in the Young Person of the Year category. Connor has Aspergers Syndrome, a diagnosis of Autistic Syndrome Disorder and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. He was referred to Dawn House School as he had been excluded from his mainstream school due to anti-social behaviour. His communication difficulties meant that he found it difficult to understand and express his feelings, and to appreciate others’ opinions.
Our staff worked closely with Connor and his family to get to the crux of his day-to-day challenges and aspirations for the future. Connor’s teaching assistant introduced him to an alternative curriculum and focussed on climbing as an activity and finally a qualification. Supporting his understanding of his strengths and difficulties in language and communication was key to this. He began to recognise that his school timetable was supporting him and is now studying at level 4 in climbing, with the highest level for young people being level 5! He even assists staff with new beginners at climbing sessions in school and is now flourishing in our Sixth Form.
He is still engaged in actively using a wide range of strategies to manage his feelings and dealing with the viewpoints of others but the dedication of Connor, his family and staff at Dawn House has made a huge difference to his life chances.
I’m now in a privileged position to take forward the success of Dawn House and extend our work even further. This will include actively working with the wider education and mainstream sector to share ideas, strategies, innovation and best practice.
I’m really excited about the years ahead. I hope that my new role can highlight the potential that a background in speech and language therapy can bring to leadership positions in education. Many of us spend our whole careers working in schools – so we possess a strong understanding of the needs of young people, their families and the school environment and can combine this with unique insights into the complexities of integrated speech and language therapy and education.
I know I’m going to face a number of challenges as Acting Principal and I look forward to tackling them head on with the support of my staff and the wider team at I CAN. We are currently in a time of change at many different levels including major developments in the SEND and school system. But there will be many exciting opportunities as well.
Ultimately, individuals like me work in schools like Dawn House because we believe in providing the best possible education and therapy for young people like Connor. Connor is just one of the inspirational pupils at Dawn House School; along every corridor is someone who is learning against the odds because of a difficulty communicating and it is our job to tackle those barriers and understand the person as a whole.