‘Not a last-chance saloon’ - Norwich alternative education provider calls for more respect for sector

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. CEO Lorraine Bliss.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. CEO Lorraine Bliss. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

For many, alternative provision is the place where naughty children are sent. It's a label that Lorraine Bliss, chief executive of the St Edmund's Society in Norwich, is fighting to end, as Lauren Cope reports.

St Edmund's Society, Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

For those not involved with alternative provision, it's a world they, most likely, know little of.

There are hundreds of schools, academies, pupil referral units and centres offering an education and, for many, a second chance to students who have been excluded, had bad experiences in school or are unable to cope with mainstream education.

St Edmund's Society, Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

The 52-year-old St Ed's Society, on Oak Street in Norwich, is one of just a handful in Norfolk, giving students aged 13 and above a future they may otherwise have missed.

For a site just on the edge of the city centre, it's big - and it needs to be, to accommodate its courses, which are accredited and audited, in hair and beauty, catering, horticulture, mechanics and construction, to name a few, as well as space for English and maths learning.

St Edmund's Society, Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant


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When we meet, it's a typically busy day - students are tiling in one corner, tinkering with motorbikes in another, and catering students are just about to serve up a lunch which could have come from the kitchen of any restaurant.

Many of St Ed's students have experienced difficulties, have

St Edmund's Society, Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

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been excluded from schools or were just not able to cope in an academic environment, a make-up which often earns centres a reputation for being the last resort.

'There is a real stigma - my kids notice it,' she said. 'They feel as though they have been forgotten, as though they're stigmatised.

St Edmund's Society, Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

'It's seen as a last-chance saloon, but it's not always about behaviour, it's about choice – many young people are academic and enjoy mainstream schools, this must be encouraged, however there are others far better suited to vocational environments.

'Some children come into here unable to read and write, and we're right back to basics. So many undergo a huge transformation.'

St Edmund's Society, Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

At the end of September, the education committee, which scrutinises the Department for Education, launched an inquiry into alternative provision.

Announcing the inquiry, its chairman Robert Halfon, MP, said they wanted to establish whether students were 'receiving the best possible support,' and said that students in alternative provision were 'far less likely' to achieve good exam results or find well-paid jobs.

St Edmund's Society, Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Edmund's Society, Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Mrs Bliss said it was worrying news for providers, and that the centre's strong links with local employers often saw students end up with apprenticeships, traineeships and jobs.

Work experience is mandatory for post-16 students, and more than three quarters of its older students move into full-time employment, with St Ed's focus on time-keeping, teamwork and professionalism attractive to businesses.

But, still, alternative providers are on the edge of the education system - unless they are registered schools, they receive no government funding.

'Often, our students have been passed from one school to another, without any success,' Mrs Bliss said. 'I want the government to see what these kids are doing, what they are achieving.

'They often talk about how many houses we need built, for example, but how on earth are we going to do that without the skills?'

For Mrs Bliss and her team, no day is quiet. With no government cash, work is constant to secure contracts with training providers, schools and businesses, and land projects in the local community.

Recently, its students have done community work at The Mitre pub and St Martins Housing.

'We are always on the go,' she said. 'We have to be at the top of our game all the time.'

It's a mindset which has paid off - at Christmas, things looked dire for St Ed's, which began life as a homeless hostel in Earlham Road. Funds were in short supply and, at its worst, the centre looked like it may face closure.

Now, though, it's thriving - major contracts, including with Skills Training UK, a solid reputation and strong local links have seen it boom - boasting 130 post-16 places and more school-age.

A partnership with Horatio House, an independent alternative provision school in Lowestoft, has strengthened their operation.

'We work really hard, but it's time that what we do isn't seen as a last resort,' she said. 'The current school system tries to put everyone in one box - but people are not the same. They are individuals who have different needs and this needs to be recognised.'

A Department for Education spokesperson said: 'We want every child to have access to a good education, regardless of their background or their ability, and alternative provision is an important part of this.'

As a registered charity, St Ed's relies on donations from businesses and members of the public.

Mrs Bliss said, by and large, they welcome donations of most kinds - but in particular struggle to track down motorbikes, or parts, they can use in their engineering courses.

• Anyone interested in helping, finding out more or looking into training courses should click here, call 01603 622035 or email admin@st-eds.org.uk

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