Neurodiverse young people hone valuable life skills

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Life Programme sees students with additional needs building their resilience and self-esteem while developing practical skills to support themselves.

TCES student Bailey is among those developing workplace skills in a safe environment at the Life Programme’s Hub café
TCES student Bailey is among those developing workplace skills in a safe environment at the Life Programme’s Hub café

PROJECT

The Life Programme

PURPOSE

To give children and young people with additional needs opportunities to demonstrate their talents and build self-esteem

FUNDING

The Life Programme is funded by social enterprise The Complete Education Solution, including £100,000 investment in The Hub café

BACKGROUND

The Complete Education Solution (TCES) runs two special schools in London for pupils aged seven to 19 with an education, health and care plan. Pupils typically have social, emotional and mental health needs and may have autism and associated conditions. TCES also delivers a range of services in the community and online, including home learning for children and young people aged five to 25 who are physically unable to attend school.

Places at the schools are funded by the local authorities where the children live. Children joining the schools have experienced an average of three permanent exclusions from other schools and been out of full-time education for up to 15 months. Many arrive disengaged and demotivated so in 2017 TCES developed the Life (Leadership; Independence skills; Future options including employment; and Empowerment) Programme to help build pupils’ self-esteem.

ACTION

The Life Programme includes sessions delivered as part of the school day and additional elements pupils can access if they want to. The programme allows students to develop skills and talents through mentoring others, leading on an arts or charity project, or taking on other responsibilities. Activities are linked to qualifications so pupils build up a portfolio of skills and experience to stand them in good stead in later life.

“The Life Programme is about giving young people opportunities they might not otherwise get,” says Corinne Hyman, inclusion and pupil leadership manager at TCES. She has overall responsibility for the development and delivery of Life while each school has two Life leads who each spend one and a half days a week delivering the programme.

Every young person at the TCES North West London and TCES East London schools has two weekly Life lessons on their school timetable. “It neatly fits into subjects like personal, social, health and economic education and relationships and sex education,” says Hyman. As part of the lessons, children and young people often take part in project work, such as planning and delivering events for the local community. “That involves skills such as budgeting and carrying out surveys to find out what people are interested in,” she explains.

Sessions often take students outside the classroom and might also involve mock interviews, creating CVs or preparing and delivering presentations. “A lot of our young people don’t know their true potential and want to be YouTubers and gamers,” says Hyman. “That works for some people, so if that’s what their skillset is and what they’re passionate about, we don’t want to take that away from them. But we also want to give them the opportunity to see what else is out there in the world for them and help them to tap into that.”

Outside the timetabled sessions, children and young people are given the opportunity to gain qualifications in areas such as sports leadership, speech and language, and peer mentorship. “Each term there will be a call out for staff to identify young people who they think are suitable to be included in the next round of peer mentorship qualifications, either Level 1 or Level 2,” says Hyman.

Children and young people are offered leadership opportunities from the moment they arrive at the school. For younger children, leadership opportunities could include being toast monitor at break time or helping the teacher hand out the pencils while older children take on roles in the school’s student council, peer mentor council, or anti-bullying council. “It’s about making sure pupils are developing skills to support themselves as they grow older and become positive citizens, building resilience and a positive image of themselves,” says Hyman.

The school has found it hard to find work experience places for its neurodiverse young people as employers are often unsure they will be able to support them in the workplace. “The odds are already stacked against the children and young people in our schools when they enter the job market,” says Ishamar Blake, head of TCES North West London. “Office for National Statistics figures show, for example, that just 22 per cent of autistic adults are in any kind of employment.”

To tackle this, in March 2022 TCES opened The Hub café near its east Acton school, to give young people a chance to develop workplace skills in a safe place as part of the Life Programme. The front of the building is a café and the back has been developed into classrooms. “The Hub café offers young people the opportunity to build a portfolio of experiences and qualifications working across a range of roles, which they can show to employers,” says Blake.

The Hub will provide students over the age of 16 with opportunities to gain work experience and GCSE, BTEC and industry-standard qualifications in catering and food technology, hospitality and customer service, food hygiene, health and safety and business studies. “We want to get the café incorporated fully into their timetable so they have a rota for ongoing work experience,” says Hyman.

“The Hub will open just to our younger students and staff in the first instance as our post-16 students build their confidence and expertise,” says Blake. “By September we aim to be serving the local community and providing a welcoming space for local events and get-togethers. By opening our café to local community groups, churches and as a place to meet for vulnerable and lonely people, students will also build the self-esteem that comes from giving back to society.”

Young people were involved in preparing the café for launch. “We made sure we heard the voice of the young people in terms of what they would like the name to be, how they wanted it to look, who is going to do what – who’s going to be the young person baking the cookies, at the table or doing the bookkeeping,” says Hyman.

Children and young people accessing TCES’s home learning offer also take part in the Life Programme, although it is delivered by their mentor rather than a specific Life teacher.

OUTCOME

A TCES survey of a sample of 40 young people who took part in Life found 84 per cent strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: “The Life Programme has improved my sense of confidence in what I am good at.” Meanwhile 65 per cent agreed Life had allowed them to gain new qualifications and life skills while 58 per cent agreed it had helped them feel more confident about their future.

When young people were asked to name positive outcomes of their involvement in Life, 60 per cent said gaining qualifications, helping others and finding out more about themselves. Forty per cent said being respected or looked up to and 24 per cent said leading projects.

In 2020/21, 90 per cent of pupils in year 11 at TCES schools gained a qualification in English and maths. Three quarters of pupils in year 11 gained a Grade 4 or above in at least one GCSE.

WHAT’S NEXT?

TCES plans to open further enterprise centres in London to develop sustainable work-based learning opportunities for neurodiverse students. “We will look at the needs of the young people – it may be a beauty salon rather than a café,” says Hyman. Each centre will be linked to a TCES school but operated separately as a social enterprise.

There are also plans to explore different qualifications that might fit into the Life Programme. “We are constantly making sure the programme is wrapped around the young person, that it is not just a national curriculum programme we put onto the timetable,” says Hyman. “We want to keep it creative and adapt it to the needs of young people.”

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