Fiona Jenkins spent seven years in the NHS after taking two degrees and qualifying as a physiotherapist in 2008. She joined Hedley’s College in 2015 as a senior physio and became team lead last year
Why and how did you become a college physiotherapist?
After A-levels, I attended Northumbria University for six years and took two degrees back to back — biomedical science and physiotherapy. I qualified as a physiotherapist in 2008, and then worked in the NHS until 2015 specialising in neurology. But that year I also came back off maternity leave and needed a better work-life balance because my NHS job involved working weekends, being on call through the night and on shift over Christmas and Easter. A job came up at the college and I got it!
How challenging was the transition from NHS to college?
I moved from my NHS specialism, neurology, and working with patients with MS or who had suffered stroke and brain injuries to supporting young people aged 18-25 with learning disabilities. The challenge was getting my head round communicating with people unable to talk or with profound disabilities and come up with new strategies - eg trying to treat students and run a really good rehab session. I had to adapt and work closely with other staff in college such as speech and language therapists. You have to look at how to get the best out of a particular student by working with the whole team around you and getting them to focus on how you want to achieve their target.
What’s your main role?
I started in 2015 as a senior physio when student numbers had doubled in one year. Last year I got promoted to team lead so I now operationally manage occupational and speech and language therapists and physios. We’re a small team, and I represent them at management meetings. Most of my week is spent working clinically as a physio offering various forms of hands-on physiotherapy. I have regular contact with staff, students and parents, make referrals to different specialists, undertake colleagues’ performance and back-to-work reviews and look at how we can develop our services.
What’s a typical day?
I start at 8.30am with a staff meeting to discuss current issues or something coming up during the term. Teaching sessions run from around 9.30am to 3.30pm; we will either go into a session and integrate our therapy into that class or pull a student out of class and do, say, hydrotherapy or rebound therapy (on the trampoline). It could be a one-to-one session depending on a student’s needs. Twice weekly we have in-service training after work when we might, say, teach staff new techniques or take part in a seminar on autism.
Around six students are in any one group (they may have cerebral palsy, autism or a range of other disorders and disabilities; and not all students in a group will have the same physical disabilities). We might, for instance, enter a maths session and help a student use a standing frame or do some physio during the session so they are not just sitting in their wheelchair. Unlike NHS physios who would complete an assessment, set up a programme and then come back to review it six weeks later, we stay with the students, tweak their programmes if needed, and are really flexible in meeting their needs. We can thus give very clear advice to our support workers and tutors.
After daily lessons finish, we write up our notes and do reports for local authorities; even though we are not part of the NHS, we still have to follow Chartered Society of Physiotherapy guidelines and the health standards of our regulatory body, the Health and Care Professions Council.
Any significant tasks you have undertaken recently?
We are restructuring our adult services within the Percy Hedley Foundation, of which the college is part. The changes are to accommodate staffing needs and streamline what we offer as a whole foundation. We are recruiting heavily and supervising a new team of therapists coming in, meaning I am currently doing less clinical work in order to sort out a structure for this new service.
How are you coping with Covid-19?
It’s challenging! Lots of students with respiratory problems would have been shielding; many have not returned to college this term even now. We’ve had to adapt, offering ‘out-patient’ clinics, home visits and remote online therapy sessions using the Microsoft Teams platform during which we monitor how students are coping with their exercise programmes and liaise with parents.
We don’t do A-levels. All students have their own Education, Health and Care plans - some have mild physical disabilities but are cognitively very able while others have profound and multiple learning disabilities. We have a large autistic cohort, including many students with behavioural rather than physical difficulties who require occupational therapy. It’s not one group of people in wheelchairs; needs are variable and that makes it really interesting. It’s quite a special time to work with this age group as you are setting them up for adulthood.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?
Funding. Not all students automatically get their therapy funded so we have to assess them and recommend the therapy they need to the local authority for a decision. The problem comes when someone, who up until now has had therapy sessions every week, has to move at age 18 to adult services and sometimes loses funding streams; they can deteriorate as a result. We have to fight for it through appeals, with some students’ families resorting to the courts. It can be a postcode lottery.
Any achievement you are really proud of?
Guest lecturing at Sunderland University last year! We clinically supervise its physiotherapy students who do placements with us and as a result, the university asked us to run a session on learning disabilities. We talked about not assuming things about people based on how they present themselves, and got good feedback. That was rewarding as we felt we were doing more than just our day-to-day work.
Personal qualities and skills needed in your job?
Good communication skills, an ability to see much more than speech as the way forward with people, and patient listening skills to understand tan individual’s needs and thus get the best out of them. Plus being really flexible - changes can happen fast daily, particularly during the pandemic.
You need a BA in physiotherapy, or you can opt to do a masters. You also need considerable experience in all the other areas related to physiotherapy - working in the NHS previously means you will have rotated around all the core subjects/services and can then decide which areas of physiotherapy you want to specialise in. I chose neurology as I really enjoyed it and now it’s begun to play a substantial role in the learning side of disability. But without my general NHS experience of orthopaedics, musculoskeletal and respiratory issues and other areas I would not have the confidence to do my current job.
What do you really enjoy doing at college?
Seeing students who are very physically disabled on land and need support in everything enter a hydropool and swim by themselves, completely independently.
A key question for an interview candidate?
What do you think is the key difference between working in a hospital and a college?
Examples of students who have achieved something special?
Two students have become ambassadors for disability with Newcastle United FC to raise the profile of equality in sport. We also held a big sponsored fundraiser for Sport Relief last year and raised £1,200 - every student did some form of movement for a set period - whether it was swimming, jumping, walking, treadmilling - even though they might normally not have been able to do it.
What spurs you on to work each day?
Watching students grow in confidence, especially those with physical disabilities. They may have spent a long time restricted by school rules and then realise they can, say, call teachers by their first names. This allows the nature of relationships to change and for independence to blossom. We all support each other and work together as one big unit.