College founded by ex sixth form head aims to bridge education gap

A former head of sixth form and school improvement consultant is addressing a gap in education for vulnerable young people by opening a specialist college.

Experienced education leader Gemma Peebles realised some 16 to 18-year-olds were falling out of the education system and needed more support to find alternative routes to maximise their capabilities.

She used all her savings and garnered support from businesses to start Harrison College in her hometown of Doncaster.

The college, which provides specialist business, enterprise and employability post-16 education, opened in August 2019 with Peebles and three students. This year, it has 29 students and nine staff.

Students are referred to it by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, NHS clinical teams, parents and schools, and may have autism or special learning needs.

One third of the college’s curriculum involves internship for the students with a local employer. Peebles said: “We are unique because of the massive emphasis on employability and being destination and outcomes focused.

“Before Harrison College there was no dedicated provision in our area. Other establishments have placement programmes but not for our type of learner.

“We are picking up the vulnerable and the disengaged who would normally be directed into a large further education setting at 16.

“However, when they stop attending, possibly because of anxiety issues, they are lost and might not return to education.

“Those on the autistic spectrum are often very good at analytical work, looking at figures, data, details and also following instructions. They have a lot to offer and we have a moral duty to support them.”

It was while working in a special school as a consultant in the FE sector that her idea for Harrison College began taking shape.

She approached Doncaster Council, which agreed to support her by funding each student who attended.

But the set-up costs would be down to Peebles and her husband Michael, a former professional golfer and sports retailer.

“We did it on a shoestring with our own savings and donations from businesses,” she said.

“We took a massive leap of faith and leased premises at Heaven’s Walk, where we have classroom spaces and have expanded upstairs to accommodate our growing numbers.

“In the long term we might look to build our own premises, but we are deliberately keeping the provision small and will more likely have more, small Harrison Colleges.”

Her team is also growing with her assistant Jeanette Seagrave, who has more than 25 years’ experience in school administration, and a board of directors.

Michael Peebles has joined up to use his experience in business to manage employability and relationships with employers.

Companies like Morrisons and the Food Aware programme in Rotherham are linking up with the college, which has also joined forces with Active Leaders and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Peebles said: “We want more businesses to be aware of the opportunities for them.

“Our students can be part of their coronavirus recovery, working with their staff two days a week at no cost. We only ask them to invest time in the young people, but they get a huge amount back.

A second Harrison College is set to open in Sheffield next year and there is interest from other Local Authorities.

“We are growing quickly and are looking at multiple sites next year,” added Peebles, who chose a rhino as the college’s emblem and named the college after her four-year-old son, Harrison.

“The rhino is meant to signify resilience and determination. From me sitting at my kitchen table last year to where we are now is amazing and the future is really exciting.”