Gemma Peebles knows. She’s on a mission.

Three years ago, I decided that the young people of Doncaster with special educational needs deserved a better education, and a better opportunity to secure employment. I wanted to be a solution to a problem and close the gap in education provision. So, in 2019, I opened a specialist business and enterprise post-16 college, with a cohort of just three. Now, we’re home to over 60 students, many of whom have autism or social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH).

While I am immensely proud to say we are the only provider of education for post-16s with special needs, where the focus is on internships, employment and work skills, it also shouldn’t be the case. There should be more educational settings which provide learners with the opportunity to thrive, placing no limits on what can be achieved, no matter their ability, background or starting point, which leads young people to a secure and prosperous future.

Young people with SEND deserve to have the same opportunities as their peers and while forming a new school or college isn’t feasible for most, there are ways settings can support their students further on the road to employment.

Putting students centre stage
While this may seem obvious, a student-centred approach provides the best opportunities for young people who may be disenfranchised from traditional education, or whose needs simply are not being met elsewhere. For many of our students, this is the first time they have been happy in a learning environment; it is the first time they have made friends, feel safe and want to come to college and learn. In order to move young people towards their independence and adulthood, we need to ensure each student has clear targets and a tailored study programme that meets their individual needs. Combining high expectations with a firm but fair pastoral approach enables students to move forward with small but progressive steps. A successful learning environment needs to be calm, creative and purposeful, offering a curriculum that develops the skills and attributes desired by employers while building young people’s confidence to succeed.

We are extremely proud of the environment we have created. There is a culture across the college where staff and students are encouraged to make mistakes and be innovative in their approach to learning, a learning journey that develops them academically, socially and culturally so that they are equipped to enter the working world. You can create a similar learning environment by looking at business and commerce and how they operate. Our environment is akin to a professional office space rather than a school; we are preparing young people for work but also keeping the environment purposeful. We ensure that the walls are calm colours and with minimal displays..

From anxious recluse to confident student in just 12 months.

Preparing young people for the world of work 
Presently, fewer than one in four young people with high functioning autism access education after GCSE level and only 16 per cent are in full-time employment. Our ethos is that a young person’s learning needs or disability shouldn’t hold them back. We recognise these students have a lot to offer and, together with supportive local employers, we can help them pursue their dreams and succeed as young adults. As a key part of our students’ study programme, we offer internships, employability preparation and personal finance skills. Each student engages with a supported internship that is linked to their own long-term targets and career aims. The college has established a strong support network for students ranging from the college team and business mentors, to the wide range of employers we work with, enabling us to offer internships from software quality assurance, 3D design and groundskeeping to accounting, administration and digital marketing, to name but a few. 

All good careers programmes rely upon the relationship between the education provider and local businesses. A top tip is to make sure that someone in your provision has the time and skills to build those business relationships and have the resilience when many will say no.

We haven’t been afraid to be innovative in the approach to our study programme and this has allowed staff and students to be in a culture that allows them to take calculated risks and not be afraid to fail. This is a key learning curve for students and builds resilience which is something that can be used in all types of education provision.

Moving on
I am proud of the recognition given to the fantastic hard work of our staff in winning the nasen Award for 16-25 Provision this year. But it’s the feedback from students and their parents which tells us we’re truly on the right path. Students have reported improved confidence levels, developing core skills, having the ability to make new friends and being able to complete an actual apprenticeship, which in turn has led to employment post college. A parent of a student who joined us just 12 months ago is amazed at the progress their son has made, from a young recluse, riddled with anxiety, who is now developing into a confident young adult.

I can’t wait to see what our class of 2023 achieves, and the opportunities they will be given. Children and young people with SEND deserve a solid education and successful career prospects.

Gemma Peebles
Author: Gemma Peebles

Gemma Peebles
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Gemma Peebles is the founder and CEO of Harrison College, which won the nasen Award for 16—25 Provision.

LinkedIn: @HarrisonCollege



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