New Merton school Merrywood House centres therapy in teaching

Anna Cooban
April 16 2020, 10.05

An innovative new school will open in Merton, adopting therapeutic approaches to teach children who have experienced trauma.

Merrywood House is an alternative special provision school for pupils aged seven to 11, due to open on April 20, aiming to nurture children through education.

Rather than penalising behaviours, educators are trained to understand their root causes and encourage students to reflect on their emotions and practise self-discipline.

School founder Michelle Quayle, 37, said: “We have got to change the way education is being delivered to children that don’t fit into the box of mainstream.

“If we keep putting people in a box, we’re shutting out our next generation of real innovative young people.”

Ms Quayle built the school from scratch, renovating a building that had lain vacant for 30 years with therapeutic colours, smells and designated calming areas.

Ms Quayle’s journey to opening Merrywood House began more than a decade ago after she escaped violence in her home life.

“As of April 2018, I celebrated 10 years’ worth of freedom from violence in my own life and I think that was really important because it’s been a really strong journey and a really emotional journey for myself and my children,” she said.

Ms Quayle first attempted to set up a support group for survivors of domestic abuse, but her offer of support was turned down by her local authority.

“If I had the biggest stilettoes, they were fully dug into the ground,” she said.

“When somebody tells you not to do it, there is this desire to do it more.”

She went on to qualify as an independent domestic violence advisor and accompanied Met police officers called to domestic abuse incidents.

Gradually she began to turn her focus to the welfare of the children living in abusive households.

Ms Quayle said: “I then recognised that I needed to support not the victim anymore, but the secondary victim, which was the young people.”

Michelle Quayle is the founder of Merrywood House / Michelle Quayle

Running support groups for children, many of whom were being educated in Pupil Referral Units (PRU) or other forms of alternative provision, she realised that their challenging behaviours were the result of trauma.

“Ultimately, their behaviour wasn’t bad when they came out the womb,” she said.

Ms Quayle, determined to prevent the systemic marginalisation of these children, and armed with a long-standing entrepreneurial ambition, founded social enterprise Personal Independence (PI) in 2010.

PI runs bootcamps between young people and police officers to help address challenging behaviours through developing confidence and socio-emotional skills, while building trust between young people and law enforcement.

On one memorable bootcamp, participants needed to cooperate to navigate through a dark tunnel.

Ms Quayle said: “One of the detectives was having a panic attack in the tunnel. It was one of our vulnerable children that brought him through to the other side. 

“They hugged each other at the end.”

So far, PI has reached 1,000 children working across nine London boroughs and has seen reductions in youth reoffending and school exclusion.

Ms Quayle now wants to reform education from within the school system, starting with the opening of Merrywood House, an ambition greatly influenced by her own son’s time attending a PRU.

Reflecting on his experience, she said: “I vowed that no child who, through no fault of their own, had been labelled ‘naughty’ and was just struggling with their traumas should ever be excluded from society.”

Ms Quayle’s ultimate goal is to overhaul education on a national scale to centre nurturing approaches.

“We want the Department for Education to see this as a new method of teaching children in every school,” she said.

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