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Citischool - A school without Walls

Author: Louise Pulford
Published Date: 1 September 2005

Tom's vision was for a 'school without walls' - and for the last three years he's been making it happen in Milton Keynes, thanks to the back up and the insight he got as a SSE student.

Citischool works with 15 and 16 year olds at risk of exclusion. They areregistered with Citischool by their school,and a programme is developed for them. It's usually two days of work experience, one day of key skill training, one day 'knowledge & understanding, and half day of 'options'.

There is no school site - the city is the classroom. The students go to employers’ offices or workplaces - and not just for work experience. So for example, BT teaches communication skills. They are examined (Citischool has a school number for the exam board!), so they do get recognised qualifications. The adults involved are not teachers – they are employers.

Citischool believes in 'learners as citizens, citizens as teachers'.

Tom says that they help 'the kids in the second to back row. It's those who aren't so disruptive that they are already a threat to those around them, but those children who are bored or find school difficult and will mess around and potentially fall into back row.'

And it's been a success so far. Last year the Milton Keynes local paper, the Citizen, saluted the success of the first eleven graduates - and Tom was able to announce that the scheme had been so successful it would be doubling its intake totwenty fourstudents the next year. It hascreated five core staff positions and there arefifteen session leaders. More thanfifty employers were involved in the first year.

' People used to say I was a very disturbed child,' Louise Starkey told the local paper. Louise is one of the first graduates - who is now working four days a week as a support assistant for Citischool. 'Citischool has changed all that and now they would say I'm a very polite and well mannered young lady.' 'Before I came to Citischool I had no confidence, now I feel I can talk to anyone', agreed fellow student Daniel Riddlestone. At the graduation ceremony he organised a successful football tournament between alternative education providers.

Talk to anyone at Citischool and you will hear story after story of lives transformed – and vital second chances given to young people with great potential who could have been otherwise discarded at an early age. Of the firsttwelve students,eleven graduated and all are either working (one as a volunteer) or in Further Education. Of thetwenty fourstudents this year, attendance has gone up fromsixty eightto eighty four per cent, remember, these are students who were at risk of exclusion from mainstream schooling.

So how did Tom move from secondary school teacher to social entrepreneur? Following spells teaching in schools in London and Milton Keynes, Tom went to work for Countec, (Education Business Partnership, Milton Keynes) doing research into provision for disaffected 14-16 year olds. At first he wanted to expand the work experience programme he had set up, but events came together to lead him into setting up a whole new social enterprise… A friend saw an advert in the Guardian for the School for Social Entrepreneurs. 'What leapt out was that it was for people who wanted to make a difference and had the drive to do it,' explains Tom. Then in October 2000 he went to New York to see their ‘City As School’ programme for 16-18 year olds.Inspired and motivated by his own vision of a school without walls in Milton Keynes, Tom wrote a business plan on the plane back. The rest, as they say, is history.

In January 2001 Tom started at the SSE and developed his business plan. In April 2001 he began hiring people for Citischool, in September 2001 the firsttwelve students started the programme. 'I had considered taking an MBA, but discounted it on the grounds of financial cost versus perceived benefit,' says Tom. He wanted to develop business skills to set up and manage a new social enterprise and gain greater self-confidence – and it worked. 'SSE helped me to ‘jump’ in business planning and gave me the confidence to write and put in front of others my first business plan.' “I learned that it's possible to apply for funding and win. It gave me the confidence to ask for money. I found the mentoring system helpful, and a lot of the benefit was the support of the group and sharing my project ideas with others of similar character and enthusiasm. I hadn’t anticipated how much I would enjoy the company of SSE staff and students.”

“I don't think Citischool would have happened without the School for Social Entrepreneurs,” says Deborah Knight. Countec would have managed the project more closely if Tom had not had SSE input. SSE took pressure off Countec. Tom had no experience of managing projects before this job. “You can see the impact on the kids. They start off 'untrusting'. But as they progress they become a lot more confident, and more respectful. They get a feel of how to behave in an office, with adults. It is generating a lot of interest on the Countec board. There are still some problems: one organisation doesn't want to repeat the programme as they don't want the kids around, but most employers are totally on board.”

So the sweet-talking works. From the army to the fire service, Abbey National, BT and Synergy – employers have contributed and benefited in equal measures. And for the young people whose lives could have been so different – well, they are realising Tom’s vision that “everyone has ability and wants to succeed.” “I struggled for six years to become an ‘effective’ secondary school classroom teacher, and ended up feeling unsuccessful and easily depressed, because teaching is too restricted by the curriculum,” explains Tom. “Since taking the decision to join SSE my self-confidence and sense of career direction has changed a lot. I’m no longer banging my head against the wall of secondary school classroom teaching, and I feel respected and forever supported by SSE staff and students who believe in me as a social entrepreneur.” “Soon after I learned of the term ‘social entrepreneur’ I realised that was what I was good at. I’m happy to have found a career home, and happy to use the label for myself.”