Supporting vulnerable children through the education system – Athena Education Support

Katy* is 5 years old and has been in and out of schools being excluded for being aggressive and assaulting members of staff. She couldn’t sit still for even short periods of time, venting her frustrations through lashing out and escaping to the playground to escape the stresses of the classroom.

Staff at her school decided that she needed special support and contacted a local social enterprise, Athena Educational Support, referring Katy to them to see if they could help her. Katy has now gone from attending school for an hour or less to spending the whole school day with her classmates, sitting through and taking part in lessons and showing a renewed sense of confidence.

Athena Education Support is a social enterprise set up in March 2019 being born out of the need to make children’s lives better, especially those struggling in school and with mental health issues.

It was founded by Sandra Govender who after 30 years working in schools, most recently as a Head of a special needs school, decided to “break away and do something more meaningful for these children, to work more closely with parents and to improve children’s life chances.”

After spending most of her life in the education system, Sandra felt that setting up as an independent social enterprise would result in more flexibility and the chance to work with more partners to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for vulnerable children.

Alternative Educational Provision – Personalised, empowering support

The heart of Athena’s work revolves around bespoke personalised support for children but also for parents and other individuals vital for a child’s development -such as their teachers.

Core to this is alternative educational provision for children at risk of permanent exclusion from mainstream schools. This takes the form of building support around the needs of each child through working with them to unpick the issues they are facing and taking the steps to resolve them. Athena work with a child’s school, which commissions their services, to work with the child for a maximum of three days a week (17 hours 59 mins as any longer and you would need to register as a school) with the goal of re-integrating the child back into mainstream learning.

Everything is built around the individual child as Sandra puts it “there’s no one size that fits all”. With Katy the Athena team saw how that even at the age of 5 she felt ugly, taking clothes into school to dress up in. These confidence issues were addressed through affirming what she excelled in – art and maths, with lessons starting with something she can accomplish and then moving on to more challenging tasks.

Over a period of a term, Katy’s sense of self and confidence improved dramatically to the point where she is now back at school and thriving. Athena introduced the concept of a ‘safe space’ for Katy, essentially just giving her time to be left alone in class for a few minutes. Whereas she would previously lash out she now has the space to be herself and get back into lessons. Sandra emphasises that “we helped her make the change, we didn’t tell her what changes to make.

Since 2019 Athena have worked with over 60 children, an impressive achievement for a social enterprise that has only been trading for three years and currently only has a team of two directors, three tutors, a mindfulness therapist and the dedicated support of volunteers who help out on specific projects.

Athena also runs parenting classes working with individual families to support them and training programmes for professionals in the wider education and education support sector. They also provide consultation services to leaders in education, health and social care.

They won the Alternative Education Provider of the Year for England and also won a contract with Health Education England to provide autism training in the East of England and the Black Counties, with doctors now signposting children and parents to Athena.

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Working with Adults

Whilst alternative educational provision and the support of vulnerable children is at the heart of Athena’s work the social enterprise also runs a whole range of services for adults, particularly those with autism.

“I’m passionate about getting people back into society. If you take them out of society you have long-term problems”

Athena run a training programme for people over 25 who have been unemployed, based on the same principals of building support around the needs of the individual. They also train businesses on supporting and employing people with autism.

When the COVID 19 pandemic hit, Sandra saw how older people in the local community were struggling with issues around loneliness and isolation. In response to this Athena set up a befriending service for the over 50s connecting people online through events such as zoom art classes, movie nights and quizzes. They also set up a popular telephone support line which helped people get their heads around changing COVID rules and helped them deal with the uncertainty and lack of human connection brought about by lockdowns.

Athena’s work supporting people of all ages is all focused on “seeing society strengthened” and it is opening up opportunities for some of the most vulnerable children, families and adults in the East of England. In this sense it is contributing to a genuine ‘levelling up’ of opportunity both in the world of education and employment.

*Not real name

Based on an interview with Sandra Govender

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