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New Year gong for founder of pioneering school

MBE for woman whose work supports pupils who suffer ‘destructive’ exclusions

08 January, 2021 — By Helen Chapman

Brenda McHugh, founder of Pears Family School, pictured with colleagues Stephen Taylor and Neil Dawson

THE founder of a pioneering school with a mission to break the cycle of pupil exclusions has been included in the New Year’s honours list.

Brenda McHugh, who lives in Highbury, was awarded an MBE for her contribution to education.

The Pears Family School in Rodney Street opened in 2014 as an alternative provision (AP) centre working with children excluded from school – and also those at risk of exclusion. Ms McHugh believes the stigma attached to parents and carers, as well as the children who are excluded, is potentially damaging.

“I don’t know if it is understood just how painful and destructive [school exclusion] is for the child and the family,” she said. “That’s what we see every day – the despair of families who have been told ‘there’s nothing more we can do for your child at this school’.”

Ms McHugh added: “They do worry and feel they have failed with their child and that’s what we really want to reverse. We can say we have 101 ideas about why children get stuck and we’ve got a lot of other families who have managed to get their children unstuck and back on track. We can say ‘let’s work together and be proud of that rather than hiding in shame’.”

The school is run from the Anna Freud Centre, off Pentonville Road, and uses a “family school” approach, involving parents in the techniques used in classrooms so they can be repeated at home.

Ms McHugh said the majority of pupils are reintegrated back into mainstream school apart from those children whose needs are better suited in AP. The practice has been taken to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Iceland and Greenland, while in he UK the Pears Family model has been used both in mainstream academy schools and AP in Devon and Cornwall.

Ms McHugh said she hoped it would one day be adopted nationwide, adding: “We are desperately trying to make the same impact in the UK. Where it’s taken off, it’s where there are countries who think holistically about children, and not education, social care and health separately.

“I think we are getting better at that now and I think alternative provision does give us this great opportunity to start modelling it differently.”

She said: “When we have been to Denmark and Germany, we talk to parents and they all say the same thing, that when they come into a school that has a family school approach they feel we are all in the same boat and there is hope. I have heard that in so many different languages now I’m convinced that it can be very useful in English schools as well.”

The long-term mission of the Pears Family is to provide consultation, support and training to other schools and help reach parents who are struggling.

Ms McHugh said her inspiration stemmed from her years as a teacher and after 38 years working with children and adolescent mental health services. She said: “I saw a lot of children who were quite vulnerable but did have talent and I was thinking, how do you harness this talent and mean that they are not just young people who feel they are not good enough?”

Ms McHugh added: “There is still a stigma, sadly, about needing to go into therapy, whereas if you can bring all the therapeutic techniques into everyday living for children who need it, you remove that stigma.”


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