Meet Barney the therapy dog who is helping Hampshire pupils stop missing classes

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A crack team of school nurses have been deployed across the city in the quest to improve pupils’ attendance.

Nearly two in 10 secondary aged pupils in Portsmouth miss one day of school each fortnight. 

Beth Wheaton, 12, Barney the Welsh collie and Oakley Hudson, 14.  Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Beth Wheaton, 12, Barney the Welsh collie and Oakley Hudson, 14. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Portsmouth City Council has been running its Miss School, Miss Out Campaign in a concerted effort to improve attendance.

And now just two months into the nurse team scheme, first revealed in The News last year, results are already proving promising. The nurses are from Solent NHS Trust.

Nurses are given a daily list of absent children and make calls to families to discuss symptoms, offer advice and find out if the youngster can return.

READ MORE: Latest education news in Portsmouth, Havant, Gosport and Fareham

School attendance nurse, Kate Watts, with pupil, Ellie Cotton-Trevarth, 14.''Picture: Habibur Rahman

School attendance nurse, Kate Watts, with pupil, Ellie Cotton-Trevarth, 14.''Picture: Habibur Rahman

They gently challenge parents over the illness, but also help to keep an eye on possible ill health and in a bid to prevent them in the first place.

Across the city, the team has made 2,328 calls to parents and held 244 meetings with children and families. 

The early signs are positive, with Highbury Primary School, one of nine schools involved, reporting 586 fewer sessions of absence this year compared to the previous year. There are two sessions each day - before and after lunch.

Attendance at Higubury has gone up to 96.11 per cent of all sessions attended, compared to 95.42 per cent last year.

School attendance nurse, Kate Watts.  ''Picture: Habibur Rahman

School attendance nurse, Kate Watts. ''Picture: Habibur Rahman

If the two-year pilot proves to be a success then the council is hopeful of rolling the programme out across the city.

Chief nurse and operational manager Lorraine Fenner said: ‘We work very much in partnership with the schools and parents to provide support but at the same time challenge parents whose children may be off. 

READ MORE: Best and worst primary schools for attendance in Portsmouth

‘One of our aims is to dispel some of the myths around coughs and colds, head lice and not being able to come into school while on antibiotics. 

Year 10 pupil, Ellie Cotton-Trevarth, 14, and medical welfare officer, Janette Levers, alongside the red box.

Year 10 pupil, Ellie Cotton-Trevarth, 14, and medical welfare officer, Janette Levers, alongside the red box.

‘Nurses will have open and frank conversations and, where appropriate, encourage children to be back in school as soon as possible.’

Overall absence in Portsmouth is worse than the national average. In the 2017/18 school year 5.5 per cent of sessions were missed. The national average is 4.8 per cent.

The number of persistently truant children is also higher than the national average.

‘If a child has a record of persistent absence then the call also opens up opportunities to have a wider conversation about the health of the child. 

‘The nurses also run teaching sessions looking at how you can prevent the spread of illness through washing hands and adhering to the Catch it Kill it Bin it campaign.’

READ MORE: We asked Portsmouth parents how they would reduce truancy in schools

As well as Highbury, nurses have been at Castle View Academy, St George’s Beneficial, Milton Park, Meredith Infants, Manor Infants, Arundel Court Primary, Fying Bull Primary and Portsdown Primary.

Primary schools have been targeted to instil ‘good practice and a value in attending school’ from an early age.

Castle View Academy, formerly King Richard School, is currently the only secondary school involved in the pilot.

Before converting to a new academy, the school had serious attendance concerns with a persistent absence rate of 35.4 per cent.

However, there has been a massive improvement in attendance since the deployment of school attendance nurse Kate Watts.

That includes a new attendance team sending a minibus to absent pupils’ homes each day if there has been no contact from parents.

Ms Watts said: ‘When I phone parents we discuss symptoms and I then offer advice as to whether the child should be in school – not every cough or cold requires an absence. 

‘I push the fact that school is a caring place and they will be looked after if they are not feeling well. Generally the reaction from parents has been very positive.’

The school’s medical welfare officer Jeanette Lever added: ‘It’s all about opening up communication with parents which is key to improving attendance. 

‘It’s also about developing the right attitudes and behaviours in pupils before moving on into the next stage of their lives where there will generally be an expectation to be in work even when feeling under the weather.’

READ MORE: Education leaders go to war on Portsmouth children missing classes

Rather than causing potential conflict, Ms Watts feels having the support of a school nurse can help defuse a potentially inflammatory situation.

‘Many parents feel it’s empowering to be able to say to their son or daughter that the school nurse has said you are okay to go to school,’ she explained. 

The school has introduced a back-to-school interview between the school nurse, child and parents.

Ms Watts said: ‘As well as finding out what has been wrong with the child and providing advice to avoid a future recurrence, these meetings also offer an opportunity to remind families about the importance of being in school.’ 

Attendance has improved to 92.7 per cent up from 87.7 per cent in 2017/18. So far this term there has been a further increase of 1.8 per cent.

RED BOX PROJECT 

YOUNG girls have been staying off school feeling embarrassed over their periods.

At Castle View Academy its red box project - offering free sanitary products, underwear and tights to girls - has been set up to tackle period poverty where parents cannot afford them.

The school clinched the Educational Wellbeing and Welfare Award at the Teach Portsmouth Awards.

Year 10 pupil Ellie Cotton-Trevarth, 14, added: ‘I have really benefited from the red box.

‘It’s not always a case of affordability. Sometimes if you forget or come on unexpectedly then it’s really helpful if there is somewhere you can go and don’t need to miss lessons.’

Medical welfare officer Jeanette Lever added: ‘For many girls this can be a real issue and they used to choose not to come to school rather than feel embarrassed. 

‘I know many families in the local community who simply can’t afford to buy such products.’

Since the introduction of the project, the school has seen a 30 per cent increase in the attendance of girls who had previously been affected by period poverty.

Portsmouth City Council cabinet member for education, Councillor Suzy Horton, said: ‘The Miss School, Miss Out Campaign fully supports all these initiatives to get pupils into schools. 

‘For any child not going to school there is usually a barrier. Schools know their children and know what measures will best work for them.’

BARNEY THE THERAPY DOG 

Young pupils needing a bit of extra support have been supported in school by therapy dog Barney.

The Welsh collie has been comforting secondary pupils at Cams Hill School in Fareham suffering with anxiety and going through bereavement since September.

Bethany Wheaton had missing classes due to extreme anxiety and panic attacks.

The 12-year-old said: ‘I was having panic attacks about coming to school but Barney really helps to calm me down. 

‘I love to see Barney and giving him a cuddle really brings my anxiety down. I now come to school every day.’

Oakley Hudson, 14, who was struggling to cope in lessons, said: ‘I was becoming really frustrated and struggling with my temper. 

‘Meeting Barney has really helped me. If I’m feeling upset or angry then I can give Barney a cuddle or take him for a walk which really calms me down. 

‘When I’m frustrated I can talk to Barney – I find it easier to express myself to him rather than a person.’

Barney’s hiring is the brainchild of mental health lead Pippa Newman who came up with the idea after seeing children upset in her office find comfort from soft toy animals.

His duties have also included being with children taking part in reading sessions. 

‘For me it’s primarily about providing comfort for some children and reducing levels of anxiety. 

‘Research has shown that petting animals reduces levels of stress. 

‘Many of the children like to read to Barney as they find it less intimidating than reading out loud to an adult.’

Hampshire schools have a better absence rate with just 5.5 per cent of sessions missed.