Students who never spoke a word at school have been telling an MP how their college has transformed their lives.
Unique in the North of England, Harrison College opened in Doncaster with just two students with the aim of helping young people overcome conditions such as autism and prepare them for the world of rewarding work.
Today the college, in Heavens Walk, is just two places shy of its capacity of 50 as word spreads of its success across the region.
Staff and students welcomed Doncaster Central’s Labour MP Dame Rosie Winterton who visited to hear of the unique work being carried out at the college.
She spent an afternoon joining students, aged 16 to 19, in enrichment activities that are helping them to learn new skills around socialisation that are key to them going on to flourish in the workplace.
Principal Gemma Peebles said Harrison College had been so successful it was a model that she was aiming to roll out across the region, including Sheffield and Rotherham.
It has already won favour with many local authorities who have recognised the need for such provision, with enquiries coming from north Nottinghamshire, Liverpool, Hull, Hertfordshire and Wales.
“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 and it is the first time they have smiled,” said Mrs Peebles. “They feel happy, they feel safe, they want to come in and learn.
“They absolutely love the enrichment activities of board games, pool, Jenga and cards which are in such contrast to their normal digital devices and require interaction and socialisation. Some never spoke at school, others were bullied and never went back after Year 9. Now they are enjoying something that has a true feel of a sixth form college common room.”
She said parent feedback showed that none of the students had been happy before in a learning setting. “None of our students went to the same schools; in fact, prior to three weeks ago our newer students had never met each other, yet here they are interacting, socialising,” Mrs Peebles said.
“The social aspect is very important; students can be very intelligent but might struggle to get a job because they haven’t developed the social skills they need. They are so emotionally intelligent that they never want to experience the negative aspects of life, such as bullying, so are every supportive of each other.
“Many of the students feel that if they weren’t here they would be at home because of their anxieties. Others don’t like the stigma associated with ‘special school’ and love the fact we do not have that here.”
Mrs Peebles said staff had built relationships with school SENDCOs (special educational needs and/or disabilities co-ordinators) and local authorities, as well as parents, and word was spreading fast.
“Each school needs to remain small for this to work but the model can be rolled out anywhere,” she added. “English and maths classes never exceed four and general teaching is to around 12 students.”
Staff work with students to find out their interests as well as their skills so they can be directed towards rewarding careers. In many cases internships were leading to employment as businesses recognise students’ talents and loyalty to employers.
Dame Rosie added: “I can see that if they went to a large traditional sixth form then they would not have the wrap-around care available at Harrison College.
“It has been fantastic visiting Harrison College again and seeing the huge progress that has been made in terms of the numbers of young people who are clearly flourishing. We are very lucky to have such a great facility in Doncaster.”