“We do say it’s all about the money,” says Jackie Smith, executive headteacher of Uplands School in Swindon. They sound more like the words of a shopkeeper than the head of a special school celebrated for outstanding teaching. And, as it turns out, shopkeeper is just one of Ms Smith’s jobs.
Since 2012, Uplands has transformed itself from an already high-performing school into a unique institution that provides education, employability training and life skills for students up to the age of 25 and beyond. Such innovation earned Uplands the title of alternative provision school of the year at the 2015 TES Schools Awards last month, not to mention the ultimate accolade of overall school of the year.
It all began with a shop. Ms Smith, pictured left with the school’s operating head Deirdre Fitzpatrick, wanted a place where disabled students could learn workplace skills and interact with the public. Legally, this meant launching a charitable trust to take on the lease.
“That was the game-changer,” says the former maths teacher. “As soon as we had the trust, we were enabled to do everything we wanted to do as creatively as we wanted.”
Ideas multiplied, spurring Uplands on to raise an estimated £100,000 in cash and in kind. The school now has two shops, selling donated items and craft products made by students; a farm with horses, chickens and rabbits, greenhouses and a conservation area for BTEC students; a learning centre for post-19s; and even its own supported accommodation, where older students can learn to live more independently.
These facilities also bring local people into contact with students, teaching them about disability and raising awareness of how much the young people can do. “Sometimes it does feel like we’re breaking down the barriers with a sledgehammer,” Ms Smith says.
“I always think of the farm and the shop as the biggest book we’ve got. It’s just like buying a book – it’s our biggest resource, our biggest learning tool. That’s all the shop was meant to be; what never occurred to me was that it would make money.”
Never give up
The first shop alone now makes about £40,000 a year and pays for itself as a learning resource. The trust has also protected the school from cuts. For instance, it pays for a youth club that was previously supported by Aiming High, a government fund for disabled children.
“That funding just stopped overnight,” Ms Smith says. “We had to just keep going, because you couldn’t give up on something as important as a youth club that was really important to the young people. Now the trust will take responsibility for that, and they will fundraise to make sure that happens.”
The trust also allowed Uplands to deliver on the pledges of the Children Act 2014, which for the first time promised disabled young people a continuous education, health and care plan up to the age of 25.
The aim was to keep students from suddenly finding themselves without provision when they left school – historically a big problem. Figures from 2011, provided by charity Ambitious About Autism, show that only a quarter of students with autism in England continued in education after leaving school. Moreover, 37 per cent of all disabled people aged 16-24 are not in education, employment or training, according to a 2012 Labour Force Survey.
“We talk about the cliff edge. Sometimes it was 16 and sometimes it was 19 in our setting, but a lot of our young people just fell off a cliff edge,” Ms Smith says.
Critics questioned whether an all-encompassing system could be built while the government also tried to cut costs. So far, Uplands has managed to bridge the gap, using the trust to extend the school from the age of 11 to 25.
Ms Smith describes it as a progression from school to sixth form to halls of residence, all tailored for the needs and capabilities of disabled young people.
“More and more, we’re doing the work that local authorities possibly used to and can’t now because they haven’t got so many people,” says Ms Fitzpatrick, who has responsibility for teaching while Ms Smith leads on finance and strategy. “We just have to accept that it’s not the local authorities’ fault. They haven’t got the funding. But somebody has to support it.”
Coping with heartbreak
Ms Fitzpatrick is the other half of the school’s leadership double act: two contrasting personalities who both have an intense personal investment in the success of marginalised children. Perhaps that’s what keeps them going in a school where tragedy is never far away, given the medical needs of some of the young people who have profound and multiple learning difficulties.
“We lost five children in five months. Nothing prepares you for that,” Ms Smith says. Outside the school, a memorial garden commemorates students who have died.
Ms Fitzpatrick says her desire to work with disabled children comes from her own background: she grew up in care and one of her foster families had a severely disabled child. “I understood needs and disability. I liked the underdog, the vulnerable child,” she says. “I learned very early on to stand up for myself and to stand up for what I believed in.”
That fuels high expectations at Uplands, which reorganised its classes six years ago to group students with similar abilities together, whatever their age, so everyone is challenged to make progress.
The school also focuses its resources on maintaining a high staff-student ratio – 170 staff for 118 young people, in a building built for just 78 students – along with training, coaching and mentoring. “Training needs are vast here, because it’s as if we are four different schools in one,” Ms Fitzpatrick says.
For Ms Smith, her introduction to disability came with the birth of her child. “My daughter is profoundly deaf, so the parents are really important to me,” she says. “I know what it’s like when you have to battle. I know what it’s like when you have to fight.”
What the ‘game-changing’ trust provides
- A learning centre for students aged 19-25 who have severe learning difficulties or complex support needs.
- Two charity shops offering work experience.
- Independent living facilities for up to 12 students aged 18-25, in collaboration with Sanctuary Housing.
- A farm with horses, chickens, a tortoise and rabbits, as well as greenhouses and a conservation area for BTEC students.
- Plans for a community centre, which students will help to run.
- A proposed warehouse training facility, expected to cost £250,000.