A teenager who was bullied and struggled socially at school has found friends and fresh enthusiasm at a unique college.
William Smith is thriving at Harrison College, which provides specialist business, enterprise, and employability post-16 education for vulnerable students with special needs.
His mum Sally Smith has spoken out to encourage other parents who are concerned about their children fitting in to mainstream further education and to raise awareness about the specialist provision available in Doncaster.
Harrison College is the only provider of its kind in the north and was set up by former head of sixth form and school improvement consultant Gemma Peebles.
Sally said: “We were concerned about William. He had been struggling academically in a few areas, but it was the social aspect of school that was hard for him. He’s quite an anxious person and spends a lot of time at home. He worries about being with other people, he’s not keen on change; he likes to know what he’s doing when, to have routine. He just didn’t, in his words, “fit in”.
“He also found misbehaviour in school really difficult. He is quite disciplined, and he likes to get on with his work, so other students stopping that upset him.
“It was hard for him to go a teacher at the end of the day to say he had not understood something, or to talk about how he was feeling.”
William had stayed in the sixth form at his old school for a year. “He had a mentor at school, and she was fantastic but it was just in the last two years. She did try to help him, but by then the damage was already done,” said his mum.
“The Hub was an option but we it felt it wasn’t suitable because of the vast number of students. He works better with fewer students and one to one.
“Then we heard about Harrison College and went to have a look and were really impressed. We came away and made the decision straightaway. We felt it was the right place for him and we were happy for him to go there.”
William has not been formally diagnosed with autism but has an older brother who is autistic, and Sally believes he is on the spectrum and certainly has individual needs.
She has nothing but praise for the staff at Harrison College. “They are just brilliant at what they do. They make it interesting and fun and very student orientated. William gets a lot of one-to-one support, which he needed. It’s very tailored education and there’s so much interaction. They will bend over backwards to do what they can to help.
“I’m really impressed with how you can ring up about anything at all and there is somebody you can speak with who will try to resolve it, however small.”
William is always in a small group of up to only ten students, which helps him socially. “It’s a very relaxed environment; the young people are treated more like adults; it doesn’t really feel like school. Williams sees the same people every day and he has built up good relationships. He can go and speak to Gemma, the principal, if he needs to, she is always around. I can’t fault them. The experience has been really positive.”
William catches a local bus from Arksey, where he lives, to Doncaster town centre and, from there, a shuttle bus collects the students and transports them to college.
For William, the focus this year has been on work experience and internships to prepare students for the world of work.
“It’s been new for him but a positive experience, really brilliant and, fingers crossed, he might be offered a job or an apprenticeship,” said Sally. “The college have spoken to him about what he is interested in and what he’d like to do in the future.
“He is interested in property investment and has a mentor who comes to see him at college. He has spent a day with a mortgage broker and is hoping to work in an estate agent’s.
“There’s such a big gap between leaving school and going to college, and Harrison College has filled that gap. Not all children are academic, some are better in a work environment, and that’s William’s goal. He’s always said he really wants to try and get a job and be part of the working world.
“He has made new friends and last year did the National Citizenship scheme where they helped a local school by creating an outdoor area and garden. He was anxious about it at first and didn’t want to go but in the end, he really enjoyed it. He was given quite a bit of responsibility as project manager and, given that chance, he really thrived.”
Sally recently attended an open evening to meet potential new parents and students considering Harrison College. “I had a lovely conversation with a mum who was a bit apprehensive like I was in the beginning, but I hope I allayed her fears about her daughter by sharing William’s experience and our experience as parents. I recommend the college and will quite happily tell anyone about it.
“It’s a new concept, something different for Doncaster and a breath of fresh air. It’s education we didn’t expect to get for William; we didn’t know what direction he’d be able to go in. He has been offered opportunities he wouldn’t have had anywhere else; we couldn’t be happier.”