A healthy education – an interview with Victoria Hanton, hospital schoolteacher

By Shane Weinmann

Admission to hospital can be a frightening and disorientating experience for anyone, especially children. A stay on the children’s ward means losing touch with friends, being taken away from toys, activities and games, and missing school. How do we make sure children access these things on the ward? How can we make the hospital environment more “normal” for a child?

Today, I spoke to Victoria Hanton, who works as a schoolteacher in the Royal Free Hospital children’s school (RFHCS). The RFHCS is one of 35 hospital schools in the UK and offers schooling for children aged five to 16. Victoria has worked here for 11 years now and I meet her on a sunny spring afternoon as she is in the middle of a ward round, looking for children interested in attending school or taking part in a learning opportunity.

I ask Victoria how it was that she came to work here. “It started with a boy I met while working as a nursery nurse at Harefield Hospital,” she says. “He had a cardiac condition which meant that he desperately needed a heart transplant and I remember him being enthusiastic for learning. All he wanted was a schoolteacher on the ward. A few days later he sadly passed away but from that moment on I knew I wanted to work as a hospital teacher.”

Addenbrook Hospital School

Addenbrook Hospital School

Victoria explains to me that each day starts with a meeting led by the headteacherr, during which they discuss each of the school’s day pupils and make phone calls to ensure they are able to attend that day. The school is currently made up of 11 day pupils living in the community who are currently unable to attend their mainstream school. In addition, a handful of children from the intensive eating disorders service based at the Royal Free Hospital and some in-patient children on the children’s ward will join for the day’s teaching.

Hospital schools were originally a resource for in-patients on the children’s ward, but many of the paediatric services at the Royal Free Hospital have since moved to Great Ormond Street Hospital. A previous headteacher saw the opportunity to expand the remit of the school from just in-patient children to include those in the community struggling to maintain attendance at school, often due to mental health problems; Victoria describes this dual role as unique compared to other hospital schools. Currently the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) refer most of the students here, and the headteacher, governors and camden medical needs team assess each case to decide if the child is likely to benefit from studying here.

Liverpool Hospital School, Australia

Liverpool Hospital School, Australia

I ask if the students ever feel stigmatised for being taught here rather than in a mainstream school. “Yes, some students do feel that way,” she replies, “but then many more find the school a relief and flourish here”. Visiting the classroom it isn’t hard to see why: there were just eight pupils supervised by their teacher and two assistants and a happy, calm environment pervaded the classroom. One of the assistants explained to me that the difference she sees here is that staff take a more holistic view of their students and the small numbers make it easier to give them the time and attention they need.

The time they can give is valuable not only for children who attend the school longer term, but also for in-patients on the ward. In addition to the play specialist team, the school is a useful way to distract children and keep them occupied while normalising life on the ward.

Moreover the school staff can gain some insight into a child’s condition and offer a valuable opinion on their care. Victoria gave an example of how one consultant referred a child he suspected may have a learning disability, but was unsure about. Over time, Victoria was able to build a relationship with the child and give the consultant a better view of the child’s cognitive and social abilities.

For Victoria, it is the time she spends with the children and the ability to engage with them that really inspires her. Before moving to the Royal Free Hospital Victoria worked as a primary school teacher, but soon after arriving had to adapt to teaching secondary aged students. Nowadays Victoria is qualified to teach both geography and maths to GCSE level, and also helps out with English lessons. Pitching lessons to children of different ages is tough Victoria admits, but the teaching assistants at the school do an exceptional job at engaging smaller groups of students at a time.

Teacher Vikki Hanton and RFHCS pupil Samatha Kenneth. Photograph: Frank Baron Frank Baron/Guardian

Teacher Vikki Hanton and RFHCS pupil Samatha Kenneth. Photograph: Frank Baron Frank Baron/Guardian

Although some pupils do stay until they complete their GCSEs, most will eventually be reintegrated back into their mainstream school and this takes careful planning for each individual child. Some children may do this by attending both the hospital school and their mainstream school; others might have a member of staff accompany them in their first days back at a mainstream school. Victoria fondly remembers one girl who invited some friends from her mainstream school to join her for a series of art lessons here, giving her the familiarity of being around her friends again as a stepping-stone towards eventual reintegration.

Throughout the interview with Victoria there is clearly an undeniable enthusiasm and effervescence for her work, and she illustrates her answers with stories of the children she has worked with over the years. Clearly this passion is shared across the school’s staff members, who work tirelessly to improve the education and aspirations of children with significant barriers to their learning.

At medical school we are constantly reminded of the importance of social and psychological wellbeing on one’s health and this cannot be overstated in the world of paediatric medicine. Education is a cornerstone of every child’s development and hospital schools like this are essential to making sure that poor physical health is not a barrier to learning.

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This is part of our Feature on ‘What does it mean to be a…..?’. If you haven’t read the previous one in the series here it is: http://108.179.231.111/~themedn6/2015/03/08/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-hospital-chaplain-an-interview-with-fr-peter-harries-op/

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