A head for business

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A project to create meaningful work experience for young people with complex physical and learning difficulties

In July 2012, Michael Gove published his long-awaited response to Professor Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education. In his foreword to this document (Study Programmes for 16- to 19-year-olds – Government response to consultation and plans for implementation), Gove celebrates the opportunity for schools and other providers to develop excellence in localised vocational programmes for our young people. Alison Wolf goes on to describe the importance of accredited and non-accredited study programmes which maintain a focus on maths and English while giving scope for providers to innovate ways of delivering meaningful and substantial work experience, and clear opportunities for progression. This is an issue that SEN schools nationally have been trying to address in recent years, and it was refreshing to see that Wolf acknowledges that young adults with a learning disability aged 19 to 24 have an entitlement to locally-driven, high-quality vocational programmes along with their 16 to 19 mainstream peers.

Finding an appropriate work experience setting for any student can be a perplexing time. Businesses are working with reduced staffing models, and have other priorities in the current economic climate. Add to this that we would like to place students with a disability into a work setting for something more than a token offer, and you can sense the apprehension and reluctance of many businesses to accommodate our students. This is a common problem for many special schools. However, there have been significant developments to try and circumvent these difficulties, and many SEN schools across the country have come up with unique solutions to provide meaningful work-based experience for their students.

When schools set up their own companies, students can work on all areas of the business.Creating opportunities

I am the Headteacher of Saxon Hill School in Lichfield, Staffordshire, which caters for children and young people with physical disabilities, complex medical needs, and associated sensory and learning difficulties. Our students face the additional barriers of physical access to the work environment and accessing meaningful and relevant work-based learning. These issues, combined with the anxiety of the industrial and commercial worlds over accommodating young people with complex needs, left the school with a problem in achieving a vocational programme that was sustainable and embedded in our curriculum offer. The school therefore set out to completely re-construct its vocational and work-based learning offer for students aged 14 to 19.

The first project we instigated built upon a strong working relationship with our local garden centre. It was apparent that, as an accessible work environment, Shenstone Garden Centre had all the ingredients needed to build a dynamic work skills curriculum: students could engage with customers, help on point-of-sale and product displays, and get involved in horticulture. They could also learn about the hidden aspects of communication, health and safety education and understanding the factors that drive the business year. Last year, the school sealed the partnership with the installation of a classroom on the Garden Centre’s premises, so that students can access weekly work-based learning on site all year round.
The partnership with the Garden Centre gives the curriculum a strong retail and horticulture strand. However, the school also wanted a robust business and enterprise element, along with a hospitality and catering dimension. The leadership team knew that it would be difficult to find similar partnerships to facilitate this, so we decided to set up our own business to enable work-based learning and enterprise, and an inclusive work-based curriculum. It was important for this offer to accommodate our students with the most complex needs, as well as those who would go on to full employment.

The school developed the idea which has become Lichfield Scrap Barn Community Interest Company. As an independent registered company, with its own board of directors, and financially independent from the school, its brief is to source and re-sell upcycled and recycled equipment and materials, to manufacture items from recycled materials, and to sell craft materials and run craft workshops. The Scrap Barn will be run initially by a volunteer workforce, with the sixth-form curriculum meshing into the operation of the company.

The business headquarters is situated in a portable building on the school site, from which the company’s online business activities, such as EBay and Amazon stores and direct online sales via the website, will be run. The main business, however, operates from a commercial unit at the local Innovation Centre. This provides a genuine work environment away from the school, and allows the students to engage in retailing to the general public, as well as manufacturing items for retail and running craft workshops. The company will also be able to offer placements to adults with learning difficulties in partnership with the local authority.

The third strand of the school’s vocational offer is to develop hospitality and catering skills for our students. In order to achieve this, we have decided to build a community café. Following a major fund-raising effort, successful grant bids and careful budget management, the construction of the new school kitchen and café is now underway. Due to open by the summer of 2013, the café will be operated by volunteers, community groups and students from the school. It will be registered as a separate enterprise, as a community interest company, and will be expected to pay its own way as a business. As with the Scrap Barn model, students will access this through their curriculum offer.

The three projects together should enable us to offer meaningful work-based learning in a range of contexts as our students pass through the sixth form. By the time they are ready to leave, they should have had an embedded vocational experience, and the opportunity to achieve diplomas in skills for working life, and accredited independent living skills.

Looking forward

A core principle of this project is sustainability. The school has restructured its staffing model to ensure that the philosophy of work-based, vocational and enterprise education is embedded and supported at all levels. The school’s business management team has a remit to ensure that the businesses are self sustaining and can operate independently of the school budget. A post of Vocational Development Officer has also been created with the responsibility of ensuring that students access the businesses as part of their accredited and non-accredited curriculum.

With school funding undergoing radical reform, and local commerce and industry still vulnerable as it comes out of recession, we cannot depend upon central funding or national initiatives to provide relevant vocational and work-based learning for our most vulnerable young people. Alison Wolf described a vision of localised solutions based on local needs. The solutions will lie with creative leadership, business management and the nurturing of partnerships between schools, business and local authorities.

Further information

Jon Thickett is Headteacher of Saxon Hill School:
http://saxonhill.staffs.sch.uk

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