This page chronicles my Churchill Fellowship

In 2018 I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to research best practice in supporting children with special educational needs and/or disabilities with bereavement and grief.


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Auburn University

Toodle Pip!

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During my time at Auburn University I visited Kate Larkin of the Auburn Alumni Association. As well as generously giving me lots of gorgeous Auburn University ‘swag’ Kate kindly arranged for me to meet two wonderful individuals - a father and his son who had recently experienced a very significant bereavement, the death of the wife and mother 6 months ago. As well as this immense tragedy they have both also experienced the deaths of other friends and family members over the previous few years. Richard (father) and Sam (son) - not their real names, have had layers of grief to contend with. Sam also has autism.


Sam is in his early 30s. We had a lovely chat about cartoons and Disney movies. Sam is a wealth of knowledge on all things Disney and cartoons including ones with British characters - he also does a brilliant English accent which we had a lot of fun with. 


I went on to ask Sam if we could talk about his Mum. He was happy for us to do this. We discussed how sad it was that she had died and he said how he missed her. There was some echolalia with his speech, but on the whole Sam was able to express his thoughts about the death well. I then shared my story ‘Remembering Lucy’ with Sam. I explained that it was written for young children, but I was interested in getting his thoughts on whether he thoughts it would useful for a child who had had a bereavement. Sam listened to the story intently and interacted totally appropriately and sensitively to the different emotions of the book. At the end of the story Sam said that the book would be very helpful to children who are grieving. I was delighted, as with the young lady at Cotting School - these are the best and most meaningful book review I’ve received. 


In an earlier blog post I wrote about how I struggle with the term ‘passed’. Richard and Sam use this phrase, but from talking with them I have gained some understanding into how and why the phrase is used. I believe that Richard and Sam use the term ‘passed’ as it reflects their religious beliefs, that their wife/mother has passed on to a better place, she is heaven. Although I do not have the same spiritual beliefs as them I see how this terms fits in with their beliefs and comforts them. And because Sam has grown up in a religious family and he attends church this is what he has grown up knowing and hopefully understanding - he certainly seems to have understood that his mother has died and that she is no longer around to be with him and his father.


Richard - told me that Sam didn’t receive any formal bereavement support or counselling, let alone any specific bereavement support for individuals with SEND, but he appears (and his father agrees) to be doing incredibly well following the death of his Mother.


From talking to Richard and Sam I realised that there are probably quite a few reasons why Sam is coping so well.


Firstly, he has a wide range of groups supporting him and talking to him about his Mum -  


* family

* friends

* members of his church 

* other communities e.g. sporting groups


This well rounded support mechanism is crucial - it allows Sam to know that all of significant people in his life knew his Mum, understand how loss and is happy to talk to about his her and support him with the grieving process, both the practical and emotional implications of the grief.


Secondly, when people are talking to Sam about his Mum they were doing so in an open and honest manner. Vitally important.


Thirdly, Richard is being open and honest with Sam about his own grief. This is such an important factor. He isn’t afraid to share his emotions with Sam. He is not only being an outstanding father, he is being an excellent grief role model.


Richard and Sam graciously gave me over two hours of their time. What a beautiful and thought provoking time this was. They have both taught me so much and I will pondering our discussions for weeks, months and much longer.


Thank you Richard and Sam, it was an absolute joy.  


And as Sam said to me at the end of our meeting ”Toodle pip!”


More soon.

College of Education - Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling

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During 10 incredible days in Auburn I met 7 inspirational women. Each of them experts in the field of Education, Special Education, Rehabilitation and/or Counseling


I am indebted to Dr. Cari Dunn for organising my schedule. My timetable at AU gave me the opportunity to teach two classes (more on this in a later blog) and talk about child bereavement with the following faculty - 


Dr. Jamie Carney

Dr. Heather Delgado

Kelly Schweck

Dr. Malti Tuttle

Dean Betty Lou Whitford

Dr. Suzanne Woods-Groves


Each person came at my subject from their own personal perspective: special education, mainstream education and counselling. This meant I gained a wealth of information.


I learnt how bereavement is handling by schools counsellors rather than teachers.


Like the UK, American teaching degrees do not cover cover child bereavement.


Although those studying to become School Counsellors receive training in child bereavement, it is unlikely that they will learn how to facilitate conversations with children with SEND. 

 

Each faculty member that I spoke with agreed that the needs of bereaved children with SEND were currently being overlooked, they also agreed that teachers needed child bereavement training.


I have visited schools and experts in the field of SEND and bereavement in Scandinavia and America. And I have been able to compare this with the practice in the UK. It truly is fascinating and provides a great deal of thoughts.


These thoughts and observations will all be drawn together in my Churchill Fellowship Report.  


MORE ON THAT VERY SOON! 

A different kind of teaching

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My teaching career has lead me to teach  a wide range of wonderful children, of varying ages and abilities, but until I visited Auburn University in January 2019 I had never taught a class  at a university. Now I have and what a pleasure it was.


I regularly train teachers in the UK and I have been invited to speak at a couple of British universities, but this was my first experience of delivering a lecturer for university students studying for  BEd and MEd degrees in Special Education.


Dr. Cari Dunn arranged for me to teach 2 classes. One class was a Curriculum Class - so I delivered training on how the school curriculum can help meet the needs of bereaved and grieving children. 

The other class was for students who were on their final teaching placement before graduating. These students had been teaching all day and then had a 6pm class with me. I'm sure after a long day of teaching they weren't that excited about a lecture on child bereavement, but the focus and involvement that these students showed was immense.


It was such a joy to teach these two classes, especially as the students all acknowledged that knowing how to support children with the issues of bereavement and grief was so important. 


As ever, in spite of the challenges the field of education experiences I am continually delighted by the dedication and commitment of  teachers. From my glimpse of the next generation of teachers - the future looks very, very bright. 

'I feel crazy' - AU Museum of Fine art

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A lot has changed since I attended Auburn University for my MEd in Early Childhood Special Education. The university now has a very impressive museum of fine art - the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art This museum is an excellent addition to the university and a place that I enjoyed spending time at during my #Churchill2018 trip to Auburn.


There were many beautiful pieces of modern, contemporary and traditional art, but there was one exhibit that really interested me in terms of my Churchill Fellowship research.


Safe & Warm II by American artist Jessica Orlowski.


The piece is a young child's coat that has been decorated with pencil drawings and then slip-dipped in clay and high-fired.


The coat has a range of  pictures on it inspired by children's drawings. The drawings include happy, sad and crying faces and the phrase 'I feel crazy'.


To me the piece expressed the emotions of a bereaved child.  

We've only just begun.....

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Well my 2018 Churchill Fellowship travels are complete, but it certainly isn't the end - we've only just begun!


Next, I start work writing up my findings and thoughts.


After that I start pursing change.....better support for bereaved children with SEND.  


And along side all of that I have a range of new bereavement resources that I want to develop.


So keep watching this space. 

The adventure is to be continued.

Churchill Fellowship Feedback from USA

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Lisa Athan - Grief Speaks, New Jersey

What a wonderful time we had together. Was like a miracle how everything came together. Made my week. What a great world we live in with so many wonderful people. You do incredible work. So in awe. 

 

Judi Alfano - Lakeview School, New Jersey

I cannot thank you enough for introducing me to Sarah and bringing her to Lakeview School.  Sarah, what an amazing afternoon I had.  I felt like we had worked in the same school but at different times.  Our schools are so parallel - both with the same beautiful students, dedicated staff and hopes and dreams for the future.  I am still in awe with all that your staff do and the responsibilities they have. I cannot wait to share all of this with our teachers.  Lakeview School has ordered your books, and my own copy arrive on Friday.  I feel so blessed to own a book written by such a wonderful, spirited person.  You truly captured Lakeview - and more - in your writing Sarah.  I will happily share this with our staff.  I am humbled by your words Sarah.


Maureen Patterson - Good Grief Program, Boston Medical Centre

It was so lovely to meet with you and gain an international perspective on how different countries are integrating grief and loss themes into classroom environments. It both highlights some of the work that we are doing right and illuminates the many new avenues that we can continue to forge! Thank you for the resources you shared with me - I have already been thinking about how to incorporate these bereavement response plans into the collaborative work that I do with schools. All the best to you on your continued travels and what comes next!


Amanda Arnst - Teacher, Cotting School, Massachusetts

Thank you so much for today! It was amazing to have you visit us! You will never know how much that it meant to me, and I know my co-workers really took a lot away from it! I cannot wait to see where you work takes you! So much appreciation!!


Today was one of the best days pf my entire career! There are those amazing people who just get it. Sarah Helton thank you for the unbelievable work you do. Here is to hopefully working together in the future.


Dr. Pam Varrin - Family Support Coordinator Cotting School, Massachusetts

What a pleasure it was to connect with a true kindred spirit. We would have loved for you to stay longer, and hope we can work that out sometime in the future.

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Dead or Passed?

Why do Americans use the term passed?

I am constantly on a mission for us all to use the real terms and words for death, bereavement and grief. Not just with children, but across society as a whole.


There are hundreds of euphemisms for death - just take a look at Wikipedia to see some of these  "gone to a better place," "taking a dirt nap" etc.


Over the past few weeks during my time America I have realised that the most commonly used phrase for death here is "passed". I have also realised that this is the euphemism for death that annoys and angers me the most.


Passed? What does that even mean? 


For a long time 'passed on' or 'passed away' were the phrases most commonly used to express death in America. This now seems to have been shortened to 'passed'. Is this because people want to shorten and speed up this euphemistic expression of death?  Desperate to get their expression of bereavement out of the way and over as quickly as possible?


If I, as an adult, don't understand what the word 'passed' means, will a child or an individual with special educational needs? I don't think so.


When I hear the words passed and passing I think of 'being passed by',  'passing a kidney stone' and 'pass the parcel' - not death!


To me using the terms 'passing' or 'passed' is just a way of bypassing truly talking about the death of someone and the impact that it is having on us.


So let's all bypass the words passed and passing and be honest and open about the fact that someone has died. I can promise you that the bereaved and grieving person that you are talking to or about will be immensely grateful if you do.    


Further reading - 

Here are couple of articles I found about the term 'passed'

Huffington Post

The Conversation




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Boston

A lesson in the history and future of special education

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Cotting School is 125 years old -pretty impressive, but the really impressive thing is the fact that Cotting is America's  first school for children with disabilities. In 1893, two pioneering orthopedic surgeons from the Children’s Hospital in Boston, Dr. Augustus Thorndike and Dr. Edward Bradford, saw the need to educate children whose physical challenges prevented them from attending school. As an experiment, they founded The Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children in Boston.  Modeled after 19th-century European institutions, the school was America’s first for children with physical disabilities. The school, originally built in Boston, featured an outdoor classroom. 

Later renamed Cotting School, it’s currently located in Lexington, Massachusetts.


Today Cotting School serves children with a broad spectrum of learning and communication disabilities, physical challenges and complex medical conditions.


Just over a year ago I was contacted by a teacher from Cotting School, the lovely Amanda Arnst. She is studying for a PhD and her dissertation looks at the issue of bereavement in special schools and how grief impacts the students and staff of these schools. Amanda had read about my work and had purchased copies of my books A Special Kind if Grief and Remembering Lucy 

Hearing this was so exciting - this was the first teacher from another country that I had come across that knew of my work and had bought copies of my books! Amanda and I swapped emails and had Skype calls to discuss the topic of death and bereavement in special school settings and I told her of my application for a a Winston Churchill Fellowship. If I was successful with my application I asked Amanda if it would be possible to visit her school (at this point I had no idea of the history and prestige of the school). 

Well, I was successful in gaining a Churchill Fellowship and just over a year from first 'meeting' Amanda online I actually meet her in person. A very exciting day.


I spent the day at Cotting School, with Amanda, the wonderful children in her class and the rest of the incredible pupils and staff of this school - for students with special needs aged 3 to 22 years.


Elizabeth Russell, Director of Admissions, gave me an excellent tour of the school. She brilliantly answered my numerous and wide ranging questions about: the student population, resourcing, funding, teaching, learning and of course how the mental and emotional needs of the students are meet, particularly in terms of bereavement and grief.


I then enjoyed a delicious lunch with the school's Mental Health Team. A team made up of Elizabeth (my wonderful tour guide), Pamela Varrin (Family Support Coordinator), Rachel Vorkink (the school psychologist), members of the medical and counselling teams, (apologies for not getting everyone's name). Over lunch we discussed the recent deaths that the school community had experienced and how they were coping. We also talked about the  processes and activities that the school already had in place and ideas of things to develop for the future. It was such a positive hour - a real pleasure to collaborate with like minded colleagues.


Once the school day had finished and all of the children had left the building it was time for CPD. Every Wednesday afternoon the school assigns training time to it's staff. This year the school has focused on mental health and well-being training. Today this involved all staff being invited to a hot chocolate party hosted by the school's President, David Manzo. David was personally giving each staff member a christmas gift and all staff were together enjoying hot chocolate, cookies, chocolate and fruit. A very special and very tasty event - thank you for including me and thank you David for the incredible book about the school and all of the other fantastic Cotting gifts I received.


After the sweet treats staff had the choice of attending a bereavement and grief workshop (delivered by yours truly) or having a very well deserved massage. With just 2 days before the christmas break I can't believe that so many staff chose (I counted at least 50) to attend my training - I was overwhelmed by this dedication. And a big thank you to Pam Varrin for all of her help organising this session and for the wonderful conversations that we shared during the day.


I'm delighted that my first overseas training with BackPocketTeacher was at Cotting School. It was something that I will never forget, as will I never forget  the students and staff of Cotting. 

THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR WARM WELCOME, TIME AND GENEROSITY. 

I look forward to us continuing to work together in the future.  


I have so much more to digest and ponder from my time at Cotting. I will do so in the coming days and then write more.  

Boston Medical Center - Good Grief Program

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Maureen Patterson of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center.


It's so exciting when you met people that really make you think about your work and send your thoughts and research off into new directions. My discussions with Maureen at BMC did just this.


I've come to realise that I need to learn more about how trauma effects a child's brain development. We know that it does, but what does this look like for children who's brain development is already compromised (due to the fact that they have SEND?)


If a child with SEND doesn't have their bereavement and grief needs supported this can result in them being traumatised. But do we always appreciate and acknowledge this trauma? What impact is this trauma having on their current and future brain function?Will they be able to learn and acquire new skills if this trauma isn't resolved? 


So many questions, so wonderful to have the time and funding from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to be able to pursue these questions.

A very special conversation

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Whilst at Cotting School I had the opportunity to meet with a very special young lady - we will call her Susie (not her real name).


In the past year one of Susie's very good friends and a member of her class has died. Understandably Susie was devastated that her friend is no longer around and she has been confused about why he had to died and leave her.


Susie agreed to the two of us having a conversation about death, bereavement and  grief. Like Susie I have also had a very dear friend die in the past year, so together we talked about our experiences and feelings. It was a very special time that involved, sadness, smiles and giggles. 


Being able to talk with someone else about our friends who have died is a very beneficial and cathartic process. I have been able to have such conversation with many different people. Susie hasn't had so may opportunities - why is that you may ask?


Well, I believe that there are quite a few reasons for this - 

* Susie has special educational needs

* Susie doesn't have a verbal voice 

* Susie uses Tobii Eye-Gaze and other forms of AAC to communicate

* People are afraid to have conversations about death and bereavement, especially with individuals with SEND


It was an honour to have such an open and honest conversation with Susie.


At the end of our chat I asked Susie if I could read her a story - Remembering Lucy, my story about a friend in a special school dying. I was delighted that Susie agreed to hearing the story - watching Susie's face and her reactions to the story was beautiful. I could see that she was understanding what the story was saying and that it was helping her with her own grief.


THANK YOU SUSIE 

New York

Music & Grief

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Everyone finds different ways to manage their grief.

 For one lady, Marjorie Eliot, the thing that helped her to come to terms with the death of her son Philip was to hold a weekly free jazz concert. The celebration of life and jazz continued on through the death of another son, Michael, and the disappearance of her youngest son, Alfie.


Whilst in New York I was lucky enough to attend one of Marjorie's concerts.


Each Sunday afternoon for the past 25 years Marjorie, now 81 years old, opens up her Harlem home  to music lovers. Yes, this incredible jazz gig is held in Marjorie's home. With total trust and a huge amount of hospitality Marjorie's home is a mecca for fans of jazz. With Marjorie playing the piano and a collection of other musicians (on my Sunday the fellow musicians played trumpet, clarinet and saxophone, along with incredible singing vocals) an audience of easily 100 were packed into the apartment. Two rooms and a corridor were free of standard furniture and instead housed folding chairs. When these chairs were filled others stood out in the hallway of the apartment.


A host of Marjorie's friends and family help to organise the event and at regular intervals throughout the afternoon we were offered juice, water and granola bars. The generosity of all involved is outstanding and the atmosphere created by Marjorie, the venue and the music is one of immense warmth and love.

 

Marjorie says that the concerts bring her so much joy and that she looks forward to Sunday all week - her life centres around the weekly concerts.


It is clear to see how these Sunday afternoons have helped Marjorie and I'm sure that anyone in the audience who is bereaved or in need of some support or inspiration these concerts are a lifeline.


I certainly went away feeling very moved by the whole experience.  

Grief Speaks

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When preparing for my trip to New York I contacted many different people in the field of bereavement. The vast majority never replied, but someone who did reply to my Twitter message was Lisa Athan of Grief Speaks 


Who could have predicted that one tweet could result in such an incredible day and a connection that I know will last well beyond my time in New York.


Having never met and only communicated via Twitter, LinkedIn and email, Lisa very kindly (and some what bravely!) met me at the Metropark train station in New Jersey. We then spent a fantastic hour at a local coffee shop discussing our respective work. It is always such a delight to meet a likeminded individual. If I didn't live on the other side of the Atlantic I can see us having regular great chats over great coffee.

Like me, Lisa spends a lot of time in schools training staff in how to support bereaved and grieving children. And, like me, this work covers more than grief related to death - it is grief in it's widest sense.


It's so reassuring when talking to someone in the same field as you to discover that your experiences  are shared - 

* some teachers being resistant to learning about bereavement and grief

* that the majority of adults struggle to use the terms death, dying, dead etc. opting instead for misleading euphemisms

* most schools aren't prepared for handling a bereavement that affects the entire school community or students individual losses

* once staff begin to open up and talk they are immensely grateful for the training.


After our wonderful conversation Lisa took me to a local special school - more about that incredible afternoon in my next blog.....


Lakeview School

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Lakeview School is a special school similar to the one that I work in. It caters for children with severe learning disabilities (many of which also having physical disabilities). The student population is larger (approximately 145) than that of my own school (82), but the atmosphere and spirit of Lakeview is a perfect match for my own school, as is the dedication of the staff and students.


The school is  located within Roosevelt Park in Edison, New Jersey. It is a stunning location and the building is state of the art - truly impressive.


The school's website states -  

"Lakeview School has earned a national reputation of excellence and distinction regarding the comprehensive array of services provided to enrolled children with multiple disabilities. Using a transdisciplinary approach, all students have their own team of professionals and paraprofessionals working together to enable students to achieve their highest level of self sufficiency and personal success". 

I may have only spent an afternoon at Lakeview, but it was enough to know that this quote rings 100% true.


Judi Alfano, the schools Supervisor of Curriculum, kindly took time out of her busy schedule to show me around this incredible school. My visit involved me being repeatedly bowled over and at times reduced to tears. Let me explain more.....


In UK special schools we are constantly wrestling with budget constraints, limited therapy provision and a lack of involvement from health and social care - this couldn't be further from  life at Lakeview School. 


Speech Therapists, Occupational Therapists and Physiotherapists 10+ of each.   

School Nurse - of course, in fact an entire nursing team.

Fully trained staff (including medically trained staff) on school transport - absolutely. 


Wheelchairs, physio equipment and communication devices -  resource rooms full of each for immediate assessment and implementation.


My list could go on and on, but I think you can see why I was bowled over. If a child needed something it was provided for them and without the delay of needing to find funding etc. 


My tears - well they were due to the fact  that teachers in the UK are doing the most incredible job, but in immensely challenging circumstances. As someone said to me during the afternoon, 'it sounds like teachers in England are doing everything - physio, OT, speech therapy, counselling and teaching.' 

And it is true teachers in the UK are having to balance all of these things and the weight of responsibility is immense. Also our children deserve better.   


I also had tears in my eyes when I realised (in spite of all that I have written above) what an incredible job we are doing. And I truly mean that, I just wish that the system in the UK made it easier for us.


Thank you Judi and Lisa for the most incredible, inspiring and thought provoking day.

KIPP Infinity Elementary School

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During my time in New York I was able to visit an elementary school (same age range as a primary school in the UK).


Like my visit to Lakeview School this was an immensely rewarding and thought provoking experience.


Infinity School is a Charter School, I'm not totally familiar with charter schools, but they seem to similar to Academies in the UK. 

A google search tells me that a charter school is a tuition-free school of choice that is publicly funded but independently run. 


First some facts and figures about Infinity -


* it is a mainstream school with some children having language and/or SEMH

* the school has 2 full-time speech therapists

* the school has 2 full-time 2 social workers 

* both the speech therapists and social workers are based at the school and cater only for this school 

* each class has 2 full-time teachers

* YES, each class of approximately 30 students has 2 teachers in the classroom at all times

* if the class has a child/ren with SEND then 1 of the 2 class teachers for that class will be trained in special education


WOW!


The level of resourcing and support in the school is incredible. I know that this is down to the fact that  Infinity is a charter school and I am really looking forward to being able to visit a public school later in my trip and see how things compare.


One other thing to mention about Infinity is that every class, every morning, as soon as the children arrive have a Restorative Circle. The school is totally committed to developing a true community in each class group and for this community to help and support each other through good times and difficult times.


I had the pleasure of sitting in on one classes Restorative Circle and it was a wonderful experience. I look forward to developing this practice back in my own school.

Not every day can be perfect...

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When I contacted bereavement experts in New York Dr. Kathryn Shear was top of my list.


I missed Dr. Shear by just a couple of days when I was in Copenhagen - she spoke about Complicated Grief at the Sorg 2018 Conference 


I didn't have high hopes that Dr. Shear would reply to me, but she was one of the few that did. In fact she was the quickest to reply, in a matter of minutes. I was beyond excited by the email and invitation to meet and  incredibly touched by her kind words about my work.


So the date was set for me to visit Columbia University while I was in NYC. 


Not long after arriving in New York I received an email from Dr. Shear - something had come up and she apologised for no longer being able to meet with me. I was of course very disappointed, but I was pleased to be able to schedule another appointment with a colleague of hers - Dr. Mary Sormanti. This appointment was scheduled for my last day in New York. I was up early that morning visiting a school in Harlem. From there I went straight to Columbia University. It was only when I was in the lobby of the university that I was able to check my email and see that  Dr. Sormanti also had to cancel our meeting. I was devastated, but with time this lessened as I found that Dr. Shear and Dr. Sormanti have agreed to correspond with me further in the new year

Churchill Fellowship – USA trip

NYC

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I will shortly be heading to America for the next phase of my Churchill Fellowship – researching best practice in supporting bereaved children who have special educational needs and/or disabilities.


The schedule for my trip is really coming together now and I am so excited about the incredible people I will be meeting.


In New York I will be going to Columbia University to meet with Dr. Katherine Shear of Columbia University. Dr. Shear is the Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University School of Social Work and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.  She is Director of the Bereavement and Grief Program and Director of the Complicated Grief Research and Training Program at Columbia University School of Social Work.  She is also Director of the Complicated Grief Treatment Program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. I feel so honoured to have time with this world famous bereavement and grief specialist – I know I will learn so much.


I will also be visiting some special schools in NYC and local child bereavement charities.

Boston

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Then it is off to Boston. In Boston I will be spending time at Cotting School a SEND school in Lexington. Whilst there I will be talking with the teachers, social workers, and psychologist and spending time in class with the students. I have also been asked to  deliver my bereavement training to school staff and other local professionals – which will be a great pleasure.


Later in the week it’s off to meet with the Good Grief Program and the Boston Medical Centre. 

Auburn University

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Finally I travel to my old university – Auburn University, Alabama – where (many years ago!) I gained my MEd in special education. Whilst in Auburn I will be meeting with professors in the special education and psychology departments along with delivering my SEND bereavement training to students studying to be SEND teachers. This is going to be incredible – standing at the front of classes that I use to be in!


I will also spend time in local special schools and talking to the members of the local education authority.


It’s going to be amazing time – I can’t wait for the trip to begin. More soon…..

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To do list!

As my time in Denmark and Norway comes to an end my to do list is rapidly getting longer and longer. Normally the ever growing to do list brings a sense of doom and dread, but not this time!


I have seen and experienced so many things over the past three weeks and spoken to so many amazing people that my brain is brimming full of ideas to take back to the UK. There are so many opportunities to develop the bereavement support given to children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (and children in general).


So currently on my to do list is –


  • finish my second children’s story book about bereavement and grief
  • design resources and toys to help children learn about life and death
  • look into how I can be involved in SEND bereavement research
  • talk to colleagues about scheduling a conference dedicated to the bereavement and grief issues of individuals with SEND
  • look into creative ways that we can support children with bereavement e.g. theatre, art etc.

And of course as my #ChurchillFellow2018 trip to Denmark and Norway comes to an end I start to think ahead to the next phase of my research – my trip to America in December when I will be  visiting New York, Boston and Auburn, Alabama. I know that this trip will yield just as many wonderful opportunities and my to do list will happily continue to grow.

The Generosity of Strangers

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I have nearly completed the Denmark and Norway phases of my Churchill Fellowship travels and I have been struck by many things during these wonderful 3 weeks.


One of these observations is that people (strangers apart from a few email conversations and tweets) are so incredibly generous with their time and support. I have met with very busy professionals who have taken hours and at times whole days out of their busy schedules to meet with me. What an honour.


Secondly, people are also very generous in sharing their resources and work.

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During my time in Scandinavia colleagues have shared copies of their Phd theses, research papers, books and a myriad of other fantastic resources. All of which I am looking forward to reading (with the help of some translation!) and taking inspiration from them.

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Finally, these generous people may have initially been strangers, but I now count them as international colleagues in this very special field of child bereavement. And the wonderful thing about the digital 21st century is that these colleagues may live many hundreds of miles away from me but I can keep in touch with them in an instant.


Thank you to everyone I have met in Denmark and Norway for your kindness, support and generosity.

Another big day in Bergen!

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It’s been another big day in Bergen – I had the privilege of meeting with professors from the Psychology Department of the University of Bergen and Clinical Psychologists from the Centre for Crisis Psychology. These two groups work together with great effect. It was absolutely fascinating to hear about the research projects that they are involved in and the joint working to achieve Crisis Teams in every region of Norway by 2020.


When it came time for me to share my background and work I have to say I felt rather under qualified! I’m very proud to be a teacher, Assistant Head Teacher and holder of a Masters Degree in Special Education, but up against all these PhDs I felt some what lacking!


Thankfully once I started talking about my work (and when I do this  I always get very passionate and animated) I got lots of smiles of encouragement and many thoughtful questions.

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It turns out these two groups of incredible professionals haven’t been involved in any research concerning bereavement and grief with individuals with special educational needs and/or disabilities and don’t know of any. Also they have very limited experience of supporting people who have SEND with grief issues.


Although I am desperate to find research concerning the best methods and strategies to support bereaved children with SEND I am not frustrated by the lack of it. Instead, this Churchill adventure is making me realise that I can be a part of the research and I can help develop resources, methods and approaches to use with grieving children with SEND.


At the end of this wonderful meeting I was not only given a round of applause (I wasn’t prepared for that!) I was also invited to come back to Bergen to deliver a workshop for clinical psychologists and researchers and to discuss further ways of working together. Hmmmmm the possibilities are endless and very, very exciting.

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Puddle Jumping in Norway

Bergen is a beautiful city, but it’s true, it rains here a lot.


As I walked into the city today I repeatedly had to jump over puddles. As I navigated my way over, round and at times through the puddles my thoughts turned towards children managing a bereavement. Picking their way over, round and through their puddles of grief. And some days that is easier to do than others.


Today my umbrella and boots weren’t quite up to the job of protecting me from the rain and puddles.


Check whether any of the children that you work with has more or bigger grief puddles to navigate today – they may not have their ‘wellies’ with them and you may need to help support them a little more. You can do this simply by being there for them, listening and showing that you care.

Intensive Interaction ~ the universal language

When visiting a special school in Norway this week I was overwhelmed by how easily I was able to communicate with the pupils.

I guess you're thinking that I speak some Norwegian.....no, not a word!

Instead I had wonderful conversations with the children using Intensive Interaction. It was such a beautiful experience, resulting in both me and the children having big smiles on our faces.

You can find out more about Intensive Interaction here.

Intensive Interaction wasn't the only reason I could talk so easily to the children. The other factor was the power of a PODD book.

You can find out more about PODD here.

PODD books have a standardised format, so although the words written in the book are in Norwegian the symbols are exactly the same as we use in the UK, the pages are exactly the same and the position of the symbols on each page are exactly the same - therefore I could talk to the children. 

My PODD and Intensive Interaction experiences were really magical.

I've always known that the world of Special Education is a marvellous one and it's a world with ever more standardised approaches. This is of immense importance for individuals with SEND as it means they can communication and interact with the world far more effectively and that is of vital importance. As individuals working in the field of SEND we need to all keep getting better and better at this - our children deserve it.   

Churchill Fellowship Feedback from Scandinavia

My Churchill Fellowship travels to Denmark and Copenhagen are all about learning from others and I have certainly done a great deal of that. I feel so lucky to be having this incredible opportunity.


What I hadn’t expected from this trip was to receive such wonderful feedback from experts in the field of child bereavement about my own work……..


“Your work is pioneering & I hope we can find an opportunity to invite you back to the university & clinic perhaps some time early next year when we could plan for a workshop for clinical psychologists & researchers here in Bergen”


“We very much enjoyed having you here & you got some glowing feedback from the people you talked to. We are all sure that you have a glowing future ahead of you within this area & look forward to following it”.


“Thank you for giving us inspiration, acknowledgement & enthusiasm. It was a great pleasure spending time with you.”


“Thank you to you too, so nice to meet a person so dedicated to help the children. Looking forward to seeing your report & to see you again”.

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Churchill Fellowship Phase 2 ~ Norway

Phase 2 of my Churchill Fellowship ~ Bergen, Norway

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My first meeting in Bergen was at the Nordnes School.

Nordnes School is a primary school for 250 pupils aged 6 to 12, including 32 pupils with special needs.

I had the pleasure of meeting with the Assistant Principal of the school - Solfrid Storum. She explained how the school was organised and the schools beliefs on children with special educational needs and/or disabilities. Inclusion is at the centre of the school's ethos.

The majority of children with SEND are included in mainstream classes, those children with more severe needs have an SEND base, but they are also a part of a mainstream class. They are not an add-on to this class, they are on the roll of the class and they have their own desk etc. These children join their mainstream class as much as possible (with the support of a teaching assistant), but they are also have the specialist provision where different therapies take place, and individualised programmes for communication development etc. are worked on.

Even as a non-Norweigan speaker I could tell that the school was truly inclusive - all pupils and staff were totally welcoming of all individuals - including the colourful lady from England! The school community (pupils, parents, staff) all recognise the benefits to both disabled and non-disabled children, of this inclusive style of schooling.

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I realise the following observations are from one school visit and from talking to a dozen members of the education profession in Norway, but here are my thoughts on the differences between Norwegian and UK schools -

  • smaller class sizes (in both mainstream and special classes)
  • higher levels staffing (virtually one to one for pupils with SEND)
  • more money available
  • higher levels of therapy input e.g. from physiotherapist, speech & language therapist etc.
  • AND most importantly, like Denmark, teachers and the education profession are respected and trusted to get on with the job of teaching. 

Norwegian schools ~ bereavement & grief

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I spoke to Solfrid about how bereaved children are supported.

Norway has a 'plan' that is shared with all areas of the country and the region of Bergen has further developed this to be a plan for all of the schools in Bergen. It is an emergency response plan that covers death, fire, kidnapping, terrorism etc. It gives details of what a school should have in place and a flow chart of what to do if one of these incidents occurs. For a bereavement that affects a pupil it does not go into the individualised  detail of the Danish Bereavement Plans. At Nordnes School should a child be bereaved a member of staff contacts the family and talks with them about how best to support the child at school.

Thank you Denmark

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My final meeting in Denmark was in Copenhagen with Thomas Boesen, a psychologist with The National Centre for Grief and Børn, Unge & Sorg.

One of the aims of the National Centre for Grief is to teach Denmark about grief and the centre's work involves research into the impact of grief on all ages of society.

Børn, Unge & Sorg - is all about supporting children, adolescents and young people with the issues of bereavement and grief. They work with people up to the age of 27 who are bereaved due to the death of a parent or sibling.

This work involves -

  • Bereavement Groups for children (groups for children aged 7-9, 10-12 and 13 -15). The groups run a 10 week programme (developed in-house) for approximately 8 children. The programme has been developed using extensive research and the programme is continually being monitored for it's impact and effectiveness.
  • Individual counselling - face to face and via Skype.
  • Cafe Nights for young people.
  • Supporting professionals working with children (nurses, teachers, social workers etc.)

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Having met with a wide range of people in the field of child bereavement in Denmark I now feel like I have an understanding of how support is delivered across the country. It is  truly impressive the amount of support and the range of services that are available to young people. Also the speed that these services are delivered at (no long waiting lists) and it is all free for the user.

As with most countries more money would be a bonus and there will always be the need to ensure that all individuals are aware of the services that are available - often the most needed are unaware of the many bereavement services in Denmark.

One thing that certainly makes the delivery of services easier in Denmark than the UK though is size - a smaller country and smaller population makes it much simpler to implement.

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Like the UK though the most important factor in the successful delivery of bereavement support for children is the people involved. The commitment and dedication of the individuals that I have meet is incredible. 

Another similarity between Denmark and the UK is that the bereavement needs of individuals with special educational needs and disabilities are only just beginning to be thought about. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Denmark to make sure that this group is as well supported as any other.

Thank you Denmark.....

Lolland – Denmark

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I was invited to visit Anne-Marie Kleis and Anne Brandt Olsen at the offices of Lolland Commune in Maribo.


One of the fantastic things about being on a Churchill Fellowship trip is that you don’t just learn a huge amount, but you also meet the most incredible people. People who are so kind and supportive, individuals who are generous with their time and hospitality (I’ve had some delicious lunches in Denmark).


Anne-Marie and Anne support schools to set up and run Care Groups – groups that help children to talk about difficult times and manage complex emotions. These children may be experiencing problems due to a bereavement, family problems, bullying, health need etc.


The passion and dedication that both Anne-Marie and Anne have for their schools is tremendous and all of this is done with limited budgets, in a region of Denmark that has a wide range of socio-economic issues.


The thing that makes it all work though is the committed individuals. People who are totally dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children. This commitment in Lolland Kommune starts at the very top – local politicians and the education department believing in the need for schools to have staff trained to support the mental health needs of their young people. They are also backing the need for regular Care Groups to take place in the schools. They are helping to create schools that have a holistic view of the child – schools that nurture every part of a young person.


We can all make a difference to children at a grass roots level, but just think what we can achieve with a top down approach – the entire education system believing in the importance of supporting the emotional needs of young people…

Even the classrooms are hygge!

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So much happened during my trip to Lolland that I need several  blog posts to cover it all!


I visited a school in the Lolland area of Denmark. Lolland is a 2 and 1/2 hour train journey out of cosmopolitan Copenhagen into the countryside. The area is very rural, with lots of agriculture and a range of socio-economical difficulties. Schools in this area have limited funds.


The school I visited was small – just 120 pupils (of primary and middle school age) but wow what an impact this school was having on the wellbeing and mental health of its students.


The school has a dedicated Heart Room – a space in the school that is always open. A space that children can go to alone or with others for support. A space where ‘free hugs’ are always available. A space that is looked after by one of the students. This young lady was so articulate (in English) of the need for the room and the immense impact it was having on the pupils that she could have persuaded even the most cynical Ofsted inspector or policy maker in the Department for Education for it’s existence in all schools.


When you enter the Heart Room you are immediately hit by the spirit of Danish Hygge – there is low lighting – created by the use of electric candles and fairy lights, soft relaxing music and the most delicious calming scent from aromatherapy oils. There is also a ‘check-in’ system for the children – pieces of paper for the children to record how they are feeling on entering the room. They do the same on leaving the room. Sometimes the children put their names on their messages, but there is no expectation to do this. The student leader of the heart room diligently looks at the messages each week – to see how many pupils are making use of the room and to ascertain if the children tend to feel better as they leave the room from when they enter. I am told the overwhelming majority do. I know I did.


Children who come into the Heart Room can curl up on the comfy sofa, or in a bean bag. There are plenty of cushions and blankets for them to snuggle in and spend time calming their mind.


The Heart Room is very hygge.


Hygge is a Danish word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.


For some children coming into the Heart Room allows them to decompress, to help them lower their adrenaline and to forget (at least for a little while) about their troubles.


For other children they come to the Heart Room to talk to one of the schools Care Group leaders, or to a fellow child.


As well as the incredible resource of the Heart Room the school has also invested in two Care Group leaders – a teacher and a teaching assistant who run Care Groups for students in need across the school. Two groups meet each week, one for the younger children and another for the older students. These groups are made up of approximately 10 children and last an hour. The criteria for attending these groups is purely that the children are in need of a bit of extra care. This could be because difficulties at home, a bereavement, bullying etc. Children tend to attend the group for 10 – 12 weeks, but this isn’t set in stone, it’s determined by the individual needs of the students. They stop attending the group when they feel better.


Members of the older student Care Group told me how crucial the weekly sessions were for them. They told me that by coming together and talking about their feelings it allowed them to empty their head of the problems that were creating these difficult emotions. The also said that it showed them that they weren’t alone – that other students were experiencing similar issues and this was very positive for them.


It was clear from taking to these pupils that they not only valued the Heart Room and the Care Groups, but that they also found the community/family nature of the groups incredibly supportive. They had a strong support mechanism made up of staff and students – all of whom they trusted and respected beyond question.


As I stood in the hygge Heart Room with these amazing students and staff I was overwhelmed with how such a small and simple space had achieved so much.


Very little money had been spent on making this hygge space but it had reaped a priceless amount.


Let’s get a bit more hygge in UK schools and classrooms.

Another incredible day in Copenhagen

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Today I met with the Danish Cancer Society – OmSorg


Om Sorg translates as About Sorrow

omsorg translates as care


And it’s been another incredible day as a 2018 Churchill Fellow researching how to best support bereaved children with special educational needs and disabilities.


In Denmark the Danish Cancer Society lead on supporting bereaved children. They have introduced Bereavement Plans to schools (plans to support bereaved children) and 98% of all schools in Denmark use Bereavement Plans. This statistic is immensely impressive, but what makes it even more impressive is that schools do not have to use Bereavement Plans. B-Plans are not statutory, schools do them because they know they work. That is a ringing endorsement of the plans.


The Danish Cancer Society – OmSorg have not only introduced B-Plans to schools they also provide training to teachers and schools and have set up bereavement groups in schools. Teachers who lead these bereavement support groups attend a 3 day training course and each school ensures 2 or 3 members of staff receive this training, so that there is a team of staff delivering the support to the pupils. This approach also means that group leaders aren’t isolated or unsupported in the work that they do, they have colleagues that they can discuss issues with and they can provide emotional support to each other.


I am so grateful to Per Børg, Martin Lytje, Annemarie Dencker and Maria Hartmann for their time today. Each of them kindly shared their work with me, explaining the history of how they got to where they are and the plans for the future. My mind is completely buzzing with thoughts and ideas for the future of child bereavement in the UK.


  • Why don’t all trainee teachers have training in child bereavement and grief?
  • Why don’t schools have Bereavement Plans for bereaved children?
  • Why don’t schools have bereavement groups?


And at the heart of all of this are my thoughts on the needs of my particular cohort of children, children with special educational needs and disabilities. This group of bereaved children seems to be rather overlooked in Denmark as they are in the UK – how are we going to change that……?

Churchill Fellowship – day 1 in Denmark

Churchill Fellowship – day 1 in Denmark

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I’ve arrived in Copenhagen and day 1 of my Danish adventure has been incredible.


Today I met with Jes Dige of Skyggebørn (Shadow Kids). What a wonderful man – so kind and supportive. I learnt so much from hearing about his work with bereaved children. I have many things to ponder about how we support bereaved children with special educational needs and disabilities. Separate support groups or inclusive ones? Separate or mixed pre and post-bereavement groups? I’m thinking that bereavement support groups for children would be best to be fully inclusive and made up of a mixture of pre and post-bereaved children. That way children at different stages of grief and with different levels of ability can support each other. I feel that the only barrier to these groups working would be the facilitator….that being if the facilitator isn’t confident to work in this mixed and inclusive manner.


I met with Jes at the home of  Liv & Død (Alive & Dead) where there is currently a photographic exhibition by Klaus Bo. What an amazing and thought provoking exhibition this is. Klaus has photographed death rituals around the world. You can see these images in a National Geographic article. I urge you to take a look – amazing photos and so much to think about and talk about.


In fact let’s all talk about death – it would help us all……


Other thoughts from today…..why don’t we have toys that help children role play life and death? Why don’t we have board games for children about life and death?


Here’s to tomorrow and the Churchill Fellowship adventure continuing….

Toys to support bereavement & grief

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I saw these custom made toys on my #ChurchillFellow2018 visit in Copenhagen yesterday. They certainly got me thinking. 


Why don’t we have toys to help children process death?

Light bulb moments in Copenhagen

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It is fair to say that I’m having quite a few light bulb moments here in Copenhagen.


Up until now I have thought of my bereavement and grief work in a very linear manner –  delivering training to educational settings and print based materials for teachers and children. But after just a few days in Copenhagen I have a whole range of ideas and thoughts that I want to develop to support bereaved and grieving children – and the really wonderful thing is that all of these ideas are for resources that are totally inclusive. They could be used with typically developing children and children with disabilities and/or special educational needs.


Let the lightbulb moments continue – who knows what ideas I will come back with at the end of my three weeks in Denmark and Norway………? And as ever I say thank you to Winston Churchill for this incredible experience.

Scandi Research Travels

September 2018

Earlier this year I heard I had been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research best practice in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities with bereavement and grief. What a very exciting and privileged opportunity.


As part of my research I will be travelling to Denmark, Norway and America.

I am currently in the final stages of organising the Scandinavian leg of my travels. I will travelling to Copenhagen in Denmark and Bergen in Norway.

While I am in Copenhagen I will be meeting with Martin Lytje and his colleagues at the Danish Cancer Society - the leading organisation in Denmark supporting bereaved children. While I am in Bergen I will meeting with the team at the Centre for Crisis Psychology.

When I am in both cities I will also be visiting schools to find out more about the education system and to see how teachers support bereaved children.

I am now counting down the days to my travels commencing. I can't wait!

If you are in the Copenhagen or Bergen area and are interested in my research please do get in touch, I would love to hear from you.


To keep in touch with my research travels please follow my blog.

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Sarah Helton - 2018 Churchill Fellow

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'Brightest Hour' not 'Darkest Hour'

For Gary Oldman, Sir Winston Churchill = an Oscar                                                               

For me, Sir Winston Churchill = an amazing opportunity & adventure


I am thrilled to announce that I have been awarded a 2018 Churchill Fellowship.


The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust provides fellowships to UK citizens to research areas of interest and expertise in countries across the globe.


My fellowship is in the ‘Medical & Health’ category and is about supporting vulnerable children following bereavement. Specifically my project will look at ‘best practice for supporting bereaved children with special educational needs and/or disabilities’. I will be travelling to Norway, Denmark and America to find out how children with SEND are supported with the issues of grief and bereavement. I will also look at how teachers are trained to support these children and how they as educators are supported to deal with the impact of working with bereaved children.


I will begin my travels in late spring/early summer 2018 and will complete my overseas adventures in early 2019. I will then write up my findings and issue a report to WCMT. Then it will be time to start the important task of updating the bereavement training that I provide, through my company BackPocketTeacher, ensuring that I include all of the data and information around best practice for supporting bereaved children with SEND.  Another crucial part of my fellowship is to campaign for the Department for Education to include child bereavement training in all teacher training courses and for all schools to have a curriculum that includes talking and learning about life and death, with school staff having training to ensure that they are confident to support bereaved children.


As I progress through my year of travels and research I will provide regular updates on my work through my website and blog, the WCMT website and via my LinkedIn and Twitter @backpocketteach accounts. I really hope that you will follow me and my adventures. Please ask questions and get involved - it’s going to be an incredible year.


____________________


Here is some more information about the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust from their website -


The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funds UK citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries and return with innovate ideas for the benefit of people across the UK.


When Sir Winston Churchill died in 1965. Thousands of people, out of respect for the man and in gratitude for his inspired leadership, gave generously so that a living memorial to him could benefit future generations of British people. 


As Sir Winston's national memorial, we carry forward his legacy by funding UK citizens from all backgrounds to travel overseas in pursuit of new and better ways of tackling a wide range of the current challenges facing the UK. Successful applicants are known as Churchill Fellows for life. No qualifications are required, just a project and the desire and motivation to improve their community, profession or field.


The new Fellows will explore global best practice in the issues facing Britain today, and bring back global insights to improve communities and professions across the UK. The Fellowships address contemporary issues, develop knowledge leaders and offer transformative opportunities to outstanding individuals.


Between them, the 2018 Fellows will travel to 48 countries across six continents.


The next chance to apply for a Churchill Fellowship opens in April 2019. You can register your interest here.

Churchill Fellowship Letter of Introduction

Below is a letter of introduction from Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Chief Executive Julia Weston

WCMT letter of introduction_Sarah Helton (pdf)

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