FEATURE - Top marks for children’s ward at Chesterfield Royal

Chesterfield Royal, childrens ward, Jenny Reaney in the playroom
Chesterfield Royal, childrens ward, Jenny Reaney in the playroom

The ward looks like a spring meadow - cardboard daffodils decorate the walls, while mobile artwork cascades from the ceilings.

It is bright - it looks like a primary school at parents evening.

Chesterfield Royal, childrens ward, teacher Helen Melville-White in the schoolroom

Chesterfield Royal, childrens ward, teacher Helen Melville-White in the schoolroom

A little girl is wheeled past on a bed - she is clinging to a Peppa Pig while her mum clasps her hand. She is smiling.

Like any hospital ward, Chesterfield Royal’s Nightingale has a fluid population - people come for a day and go home, some stay overnight, some stay for a week or more.

But for an unlucky few, Nightingale can become home for months - often at a time when life events are at their most crucial.

As the hospital’s children’s ward, none of its patients are older than 16. Many are much younger.

Children get bored easily. Children get scared easily.

And that is where the work of the hospital’s education service and play specialists come in.

Their biggest achievement recently, I am told by a procession of staff, was getting a group of long-term patients through their GCSEs - and with good grades.

Not an easy task when you are dealing with young people away from home, away from school, and anxious about their futures.

“Children being on a ward over a period when they were supposed to be taking their GCSEs was potentially going to be a big problem for them forever,” says Matron Tracy Barker.

“Our solution was to register Nightingale Ward as an independent school, which was by far the most stressful thing I have had to do in my entire career.”

Through intense planning and hard work, the students were able to sit their exams, under strict conditions, and at the same time as their school peers - and all while a functioning ward carried on with its daily concerns.

“The school teachers we have here work to meet the educational needs of the patients, and they give their days a feeling of structure,” she adds.

“Our play specialists do everything else.”

There are three teachers on the ward to teach youngsters in a special classroom area between 9am and 12noon, Monday to Friday. They consist of a science specialist, an English practitioner and a primary educator.

Liz Bostock is responsible for the delivery of education on the ward, and is provided as part of an educational outreach service from Derbyshire County Council.

“We liaise closely with the school for the longer-staying patients as we want to make sure their reintegration back into mainstream education is as smooth as possible,” she says.

“Here is like most schools in many ways - you get young people who don’t like school and don’t like teachers being with them, so we do have to jolly those young people along.

“Then we get others who are desperately worried about falling behind, and with the young people who we recently put through their GCSEs, we were able to help them progress through to their post-16 education.

“I would have been devastating for them if their illnesses had put them back by a year.”

Aside from formal education, play also plays a crucial role for younger patients on the ward - although meeting the needs of toddlers through to those on the cusp of adulthood is no mean feat.

The ward is fully equipped with an outdoor play area and a special soft-play room, provided by the fundraising efforts of parents.

Jenny Reaney is Nightingale’s play specialist team-leader and joined the ward eight years ago following a degree in childhood studies and work as a teaching assistant.

She says: “I didn’t even know this job existed until I saw the advert in the newspaper, but I thought it sounded like a really rewarding and interesting thing to do.

“It’s really great when you see the patients going home after a long stay with us, and a lot of them pop back to see us and let us know how they are getting on.

“No two days are the same - it’s different every single day, but there are some children that you just always remember as well.”

But play also has a more crucial role in supporting the clinical specialists - acting as a distraction for worried children, but also reassuring young minds about the reality of the procedures they face.

“We had one young man who was severely autistic and had to go for an MRI scan,” says Jenny.

“Being on the ward was hugely challenging for him because it was a long way from his routine and comfort zone.

“We realised he was very interested in computers and arranged for a quiet location for him to occupy himself and we were able to get him through a general anaesthetic, which was a massive achievement.

“I just remember his mum coming over and giving me a massive hug at the end.”