A queen bee's astonishing hive of industry

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Headteacher Maxine Pittaway has transformed the lives of her students

Original paper headline: An astonishing hive of industry run by a very `special' queen bee

Headteacher Maxine Pittaway's dream of an SEN centre full of successful business enterprises where pupils can learn skills for life has earned her a National Teaching Award, an audience with Gordon Brown, and transformed the lives of her students.

By anyone's standards, St Christopher's School in Wrexham would be considered extraordinary.

With its wide range of enterprising facilities, including a car wash, charity shop, beauty salon and cafe, the school has made enriching the education, and expanding the horizons, of its pupils its mission.

For a mainstream setting to offer these opportunities would be impressive, but for a special school with 240 pupils aged five to 19, most of whom have severe to moderate learning difficulties, it is truly amazing.

The transformation of St Christopher's is the result of years of hard work by its staff and the ambition of its visionary headteacher, Maxine Pittaway.

Twenty years ago, when she was a teacher at the school, Ms Pittaway persuaded the then headteacher to let her set up a hairdressing salon to offer work experience to pupils.

Fed up with the ignorant but all-too-common attitude that special educational needs (SEN) children on work placements were only good for brushing up or making tea, she set out to prove that her pupils were capable of much more.

The salon proved such a huge success that it paved the way for other enterprises including a cafe and a garage complex, and in 2000, when St Christopher's moved to the Stockwell Grove area of Wrexham, more initiatives followed.

Pupil-run businesses now include a hair and beauty salon, a charity shop, tuck shop, car valeting service and market garden, and other ventures include a bicycle recycling service and an eco taskforce.

But enterprise is more than just an extra-curricular activity at St Christopher's. It is now firmly embedded in the curriculum and has become a vehicle for demonstrating the potential of pupils, with several gaining OCN and NVQ accreditation.

Last month, Ms Pittaway's efforts were rewarded with the Department for Children, Schools and Families award for enterprise at the National Teaching Awards (NTAs) in London, an honour that saw her entertained by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, at Downing Street.

Judges were "wowed" by the school's "dazzling array of schemes" and said Ms Pittaway had "enough enthusiasm and entrepreneurial flair to run any company".

Ms Pittaway, who became head 14 years ago, said her ethos was inspired by an "awesome" college lecturer who believed that business and education should be partners.

"I could see how business could work with schools and I decided that was the way forward," she said. "Not everything has to be 100 per cent academic; sometimes education has to be flexible."

Bringing local businesses on board was vital, but Ms Pittaway knew she could not just go "cap in hand" asking them for cash.

Instead, long-term parnerships have been formed with companies such as Asda, HSBC and Redrow, which have provided not only thousands of pounds of funding over the years, but valuable time and expertise as well.

Tarmac allowed the school to set up an eco-centre on a 46-acre site on its nearby quarry, which last year attracted more than 16,000 visitors.

Judges said Ms Pittaway is adept at spotting opportunities and that her "ingenuity is endless". For example, pupils repair recovered bicycles from the local police compound, giving some back to the police and selling the rest.

The car valeting service was set up for boys who might find being a mechanic too tough, and is now used by the police and taxi firms.

However, not all Ms Pittaway's colleagues have shared her vision and enthusiasm over the years.

"Your school may be a caring environment for children with special needs, but does a caring environment bring out the best in their education?" she said. "They need transferable skills and their independence, and you can't do that only in the classroom."

The doubters who were not won over by her drive and determination were eventually convinced by the impressive results: confident pupils full of self-esteem. Academic results are also important, with 35 GCSE passes this year.

A glowing report by the Welsh inspectorate, Estyn, last year said: "St Christopher's is a good school that meets the needs of its pupils effectively. The school has many good features, a substantial number of which are outstanding."

Ms Pittaway said that for some pupils, just holding down a job after they left school would once have been seen as an achievement, but many have actually gone on to excel in the workplace. Three former pupils are even employed by the school: one works in the cafe, one is a full-time hairdresser and another works part-time on the school's reception.

The transformation of St Christopher's has also helped overhaul the local community's concept of SEN education, as well as the outlook of many parents.

Ms Pittaway said: "Special needs education has come a million miles in the last few decades. Years ago, people shied away from it - parents didn't want to admit their child had a special need and didn't want to send them to a special school. Now that's totally reversed. I don't have to change attitudes any more. We don't call ourselves a special school, we are just St Christopher's School."

The head is keen to share her school's success and has opened her doors to educationists from across the UK, many of whom have been inspired to emulate her ideas.

"It's all about sharing - it's no good keeping it to yourself," she said. "Every school has got something they are good at, and if you can enthuse your students, that's great. But I don't think everybody should have a salon, for example."

The Assembly government's vocationally led 14-19 learning pathways policy has also allowed St Christopher's to share its facilities with mainstream pupils from other Wrexham secondary schools, further breaking down barriers between the two sectors.

Ms Pittaway said she is still "fizzing" with ideas and her ambition knows no bounds.

She now wants to build a warehouse to store and repair second-hand furniture, and plans to introduce the skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate at foundation level.

"I'm always thinking of the future, I never stop," she said. "Sometimes I think I want to change the world."

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