Foxes Academy has quite the story to tell. It was all started 24 years ago by two friends who believed that young people with learning disabilities had a valuable contribution to make to society. They founded Foxes Hotel, which was, up until 18 March this year, a busy 15-bedroom hotel, with a bar and restaurant, run by our 80 students.
It provided a proven launchpad to paid work in the hospitality industry, with strong partnerships with Hilton Hotels and CH&Co, and 85 per cent of 2019 graduates gained jobs, compared to a national average for people with learning disabilities of just 6 per cent.
Over the years, Foxes has transformed many lives, has been graded by Ofsted as an "outstanding" residential training college, and was awarded overall and specialist provider of the year at the Tes awards in 2019.
Now, in the face of Covid-19, the hotel is closed. But this isn’t the end of the Foxes story.
The staff and students are adapting to new ways of working as the situation evolves.
The challenges have been enormous. The government’s statement on 20 March emphasised the vital role of care in schools and colleges for vulnerable children (including all those with an education, health and care plan) and those with critical worker parents. The subsequent “lockdown” didn’t, therefore, change our requirement to keep Foxes open for students in need, as per the government guidance.
What are the top challenges and how we have overcome them?
Keeping up with the government’s fast-moving agenda
Our planning changes almost daily as new guidance is released. The way we deliver our programmes is becoming increasingly innovative and flexible. We are mobilising to deliver a virtual curriculum to students that may not be able to attend college during the pandemic. Being a part of The Aurora Group means that we can draw from the experience and resource across all of our services, which has been extremely valuable.
A change in routine
Change is difficult for any young person but especially for those with learning disabilities who thrive on clear communication, routine and stability. We have made sure students understand and are not fearful, with therapeutic support woven throughout communications. We remain in contact with families over Easter, supporting them over the phone and via face to face platforms.
Delivering student education while at home
We have overcome this challenge by again sharing ideas across the wider Aurora education community. We have conducted student and parent surveys and creatively adapted the curriculum. Learning needs to be fun, otherwise students will lose interest. Hence a functional skills lesson from home involves a virtual city break to Paris, where you visit a museum and send an e-postcard. Independent living lessons incorporate life skills so welcomed by parents: cleaning routines, laundry, budgeting. Cookery lessons continue using visual recipes.
Replicating vocational training
The biggest challenge by far is replicating the vocational Foxes Hotel training. So while the rest of us are missing our local pub or the respite of a meal out, Foxes students will be wining and dining their families. Preparing a three-course menu using their front of house skills. The education team will be talking regularly to students and supporting them virtually, with house team leaders calling parents. In the background, therapists are building up a resource bank that will be integrated with the education plans. For example, occupational therapists can advise on the best type of adaptive kitchen equipment.
The fear of the unknown
Because our staff are well supported and informed, they are embracing radical change in a way we didn’t think was possible. They are excited about new ways of working. This refreshed team spirit is helping everyone to work collaboratively, to achieve the best possible outcomes for students. Another unexpected but positive outcome has been the temporary suspension of non-essential regulatory visits. As a provider who has gained three consecutive "outstanding" inspections, this has allowed us to think more flexibly, continuing to provide high quality, integrated education for every student.
We are hopeful that once hospitality businesses resume trading there will be increased demand to employ our students, as the sector recovers and needs more part-time staff. Young people with learning disabilities also bring a wealth of benefits to companies, including closer team working, breaking down of barriers, kindness and commitment – all values employers must surely put at the top of their agendas now.
Providing support to our staff
Once we had worked through risk assessments for each student we were able to assess staff needs to ensure that high-risk staff stayed at home in line with the guidance. We’ve supported staff to stay calm and collected through regular and real-time communication. This has meant that across the group all schools and colleges remain open in line with government guidance.
Not a challenge, but in desperate times they deserve a mention. It has been inspiring to witness acts of heroism, often from unexpected quarters. Staff have been supporting parents by delivering food hampers. One of our tutors, a talented artist, is designing and producing a calming colouring book for students. School desks and chairs have been given to disadvantaged families. Outdoor learning departments deliver mindfulness videos from peaceful Forest School settings via YouTube, and the list goes on.
At Foxes, we are recognising that stories give us a sense of direction, of being and belonging. Our story is one of growth and resilience, even during the most difficult of times.
Emma Cobley is the principal of Foxes Academy