Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)s are traumatic events in (early) childhood that significantly affect health and wellbeing, such as verbal, mental, sexual and physical abuse, or being raised in an environment where violence or substance abuse is present.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Hub Wales was established in 2017. It is funded by the Welsh Government and hosted by Public Health Wales. The hub consists of a small team of 12 people, with a mission to transform public services, organisations, and communities to become aware of ACEs and to be trauma informed in practice. Its aim is for Wales to be a trauma informed nation by 2025, and it is already a world leader in preventing, mitigating, and tackling ACEs. It is challenging and transforming organisational culture and ways of working to create a societal shift to break the long term and often inter-generational cycle of ACEs, adversity, and trauma across the life course.
Natalie Blakebourough, National Lead for Strategy, Skills and Training at the ACE Support Hub provides insights on the impact that the hub is having upon the educational sector in Wales.
The ACE Hub Wales has worked with a range of sectors since 2017 including housing, policing and criminal justice, youth work services and sport. From the outset, one of the priorities has been to support the development of a Whole School Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing, and to ensure that every school in Wales is ACE aware, inclusive and trauma-informed, helping children to flourish and have the best start in life. With specific funding from the Welsh government, we have worked with primary and secondary schools across Wales, delivering specific training to ensure that everyone involved in and within the school setting have an awareness of ACEs and are able to confidently respond to trauma.
This inclusive approach has engaged teachers, senior leaders, governors, parents, learners, and the wider community, with impressive results. At one secondary school, we saw a 48% improvement in pupil attendance following training on ACEs and a trauma informed approach, as well as improved wellbeing outcomes for staff. In a primary school working in a trauma informed way, there had been no pupil exclusions in over 17 years. All schools in Wales have had the opportunity to have in-person training and can access all resources online for free.
To support the cultural, procedure and systemic change needed to transform the education system we have coproduced a toolkit and suite of resources to support institutions within it and those that work with them. The Trauma and ACE (TrACE) Informed Organisational Toolkit is an enabling tool that encourages a self-assessment of an organisation across six domain areas, to assess and capture existing good practice and to action plan around areas for strengthening. It moves away from training being the only solution to a more holistic and sustainable change process that prioritises workforce development. It emphasises a person-centred approach that understands the needs of the learner, workforce, and organisation in the context of the community and environment in which they live, learn, and operate.
The fundamental principle of our approach is a universal understanding that anyone may have experienced adversity and trauma in their lives. Whilst we strive to prevent ACEs in society, we know that children and young people in Wales may not have had access to the protective factors that we know support them to overcome the trauma they may have or continue to experience during their educational journey. This could be because of social inequalities, barriers to accessing support or lack of awareness that support is available.
What we did
The TrACE Toolkit has been piloted and is currently being implemented across 2 Further Education (FE) Colleges and one Higher Education (HE) Institute in Wales. This provided early learning, leading to the establishment of a community of practice to encourage the sharing of information, best practice, and a supportive environment from which to scale up the approach across the education system in Wales. The main findings from the pilots have been:
- Preparation - each institute needs to understand, at the outset, the long-term commitment that they are making to provide a truly trauma and ACE informed organisation.
- Culture -There needs to be understanding by all involved of cultural change, the time required to put it in to effect, and the subsequent project management.
- Collaborative leadership- the whole organisation, including learners, must be included using existing participation mechanisms within FE and HE such as learner wellbeing ambassador roles and, student union representatives
- Training - The impact that the training on ACEs and trauma-informed practice within FE was impressive and led to recommendations that training should be formalised in training programmes across FE.
- Passion and commitment - this work has shone a light on, and celebrates, the incredible amount of commitment, enthusiasm and existing good practice within FE and HE.
Natalie Blakeborough joined the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Hub Wales, hosted by Public Health Wales, in 2021 having worked in the specialist violence against women and girls third sector for 13 years, from front line practitioner roles to senior management roles. Her work experience and education prior to this is in youth and community development work.
Natalie has a strong interest in primary prevention of adversity and trauma, but also in preventing further harm by having informed communities and services available to those who experience it therefore promoting a whole system approach that addresses inequalities.
Natalie’s career to date has been shaped by the experiences where women, children and young people have trusted her enough to walk alongside them in their recovery journey. This has driven her to continuously highlight where systems fail individuals, and she has made it a personal aspiration to challenge those system failures wherever her career takes her, so that we go beyond documenting learning and push for real change so that no child, young person, or adult facing adversity and trauma is failed in the future. Twitter: @NatBlakeborough