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Safeguarding therapeutic provision for children at special schools

Hughes Hall alumnus, Neil Gilbride (2009, MEd Psychology and Education) explains how he and his team at the Oak National Academy have been ensuring that children from special schools can continue to access vital therapeutic provision during the current educational turmoil.

Oak National Academy is a national collective effort of over 200 teachers and education specialists who came together to provide free-to-use, accessible remote education for children across the UK. During the pandemic, we designed and released online over 10,000 lessons for the entire academic year. This was intended to ensure that in the event of further lockdowns, schools could provide resources to students across all age ranges, abilities and subjects. Teachers can pick and choose which parts of the Oak curriculum they wish to use, and how they use them.

Therapeutic provision ­– online

One particular concern was for children who attend specialist settings and experience a bespoke curriculum. A critical part of this bespoke curriculum is regular therapeutic intervention, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. Due to lockdown and medical vulnerability, we were worried that children who attend these schools were not going to be able to access these critical interventions that provide the foundations for lifelong learning and independent living.

In my role as Head of Therapies at Oak throughout 2020, I have been leading a team of occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and physiotherapists. My objective was to help the therapists design curricula and online lessons following sound pedagogical principles that could support a variety of needs.

 Together, we developed online therapeutic provision for: speech and language, physiotherapy, sensory therapy, and occupational therapy. 

The major challenge was creating accessible resources in a domain where individualised support is key. Therapists and parents are used to working one-to-one with a family, adapting to the very specific needs of the child. Furthermore, with individualised attention, therapists can build relationships that motivate and inspire families to commit to the intense practice required to support their child’s progress. It was quite clear to us that we would need to think very carefully about how we could replicate such features within a pre-recorded, online medium.

We recognised that curriculum design and lesson delivery would be vital. By having discrete modules of sufficient length, we could increase the skill in small increments. This means families can start at the lesson most appropriate to their child’s needs. Within the lessons, our therapists took a positive, encouraging and reassuring approach, speaking to both the child and the parent so everyone felt included. Using the same therapist throughout allowed the students to build a sense of familiarity with the presenter, encouraging a positive learning environment.


During the first lockdown (May 2020), our therapist resources were reaching over 10,000 families with children with specific needs a week. By the start of 2021, we had published over more than 300 free-to-access therapy sessions, enough online content for an entire academic year. Between September 2020 and January 2021, our reach expanded even further with over 37,000 families accessing our resources.

The pandemic is not over. Even when we have regained a vague sense of normality, the waiting list for support and intervention will be far greater. Therefore, our focus right now is to increase awareness of these resources and to continue to work with colleagues to further improve and enhance our offer.

We do not believe another platform such as ours currently exists – one that is free to use, easy to access, requires minimum resources and is designed for therapists or families to work sequentially within a specific domain over a substantive number of lessons. The resource represents a truly interdisciplinary effort, hybridising clinical expertise with sound and solid pedagogy.

Our therapists’ programme is aimed at a very specific group of families whose needs are all too often overlooked by society. There are around 120,000 children that attend specialist settings in England. We know that those with disabilities are suffering greatly as a result of this pandemic. We believe this innovation will allow our most vulnerable children to continue to receive the therapy they need in order to thrive.

Neil Gilbride

Neil is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Gloucestershire, where he is also the Acting Course Lead for PGCE Secondary Education and PI for the Getting Heads Together ERASMUS+ Research Project (2021–2024).

This article was published in the most recent edition of the College magazine, Hughes 32 which can be read in full here.

June 2021