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How a school for kids with complex educational needs is changing lives: 'These kids can thrive'

Big Issue Invest helped to save Mercia Learning, a school for kids with complex educational needs. Applications are now open for more grants

Too many children are forced to travel long distances to get to school. Credit: canva

How did you used to get to school? Perhaps you cycled, caught the bus or walked? Now imagine having to catch a taxi for nearly 50 miles every day. In rural areas, long commutes like this are often the only option for children with complex educational needs.

“In the countryside, there is very limited provision for children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), trauma, anxiety, and ADHD,” said Debra Thomas, a former teacher and therapeutic foster carer. “Some of these children end up totally unsupported or travelling really long distances.”

Thomas founded Hereford-based Mercia Learning to change that. In September 2023, the GEM Hereford (“Growth, Empowerment, Motivation”) school opened its doors – supported by a Big Issue Invest (BII) loan of £30,000.

Today, BII – the investment arm of the Big Issue Group – has launched its new Impact Loans England programme (ILE), opening applications for social businesses and charities working across the UK.

“We wouldn’t have survived without the Big Issue Invest loan,” said Thomas. “Hopefully other organisations can benefit, too.”

What does Mercia Learning do?

Mercia Learning caters for children from different backgrounds, but needs are often on the higher end of the spectrum and include autism, trauma, anxiety and/or ADHD.

“In the mainstream, these children can show behaviours that are considered ‘naughty’ and they end up excluded,” Thomas said. “But they’re not naughty, they can thrive if they are given the chance.”

“If they are wrongly sent to the school for kids with behavioural problems, they can end up really traumatised.”

The GEM school operates on a ‘PACE’ framework – Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy. For the 12 pupils in the school’s first cohort, the approach is already paying dividends.

“The kids involve themselves in their own learning,” explained Thomas. “The morning is quite academic, but in the afternoon they can choose their activities. And we don’t tell them off in the way they do in mainstream schools.”

“For example, one child hadn’t been in school for more than 10 minutes at a time for more than two years,” Thomas says. “But he hasn’t missed a day since we opened.”

Big Issue Invest provided a loan to the school after a burst pipe flooded their facility in December 2022, just a few months before they originally planned on opening. The money “saved” the school, Thomas said. “I thought it was all over before we got the loan,” she recalls.

Eight more children are on the waiting list. The school eventually hopes to expand, opening another facility in the centre of Hereford.

What is the Impact Loans England programme (ILE)?

BII supports social businesses and charities working to unlock opportunities for people affected by poverty in the UK.

ILE is a competitive blended loan/grant product which is designed to provide an inclusive, flexible and patient loan offering that can help social organisations and charities grow.

Big Issue Invest is currently offering between £20,000 to £400,000, with up to 20% of this amount as a grant to investees, with terms of between one to eight years. There is potential for up to 12 months of initial interest-only period and no early repayment charges.

BII CEO Danyal Sattar said that the fund will help businesses struggling with post-COVID uncertainty.

“The Covid-19 pandemic badly affected the business models of many social enterprises across the country,’ he said. “There is an increasing need for loan products that can help social businesses deal with seasonal fluctuations in income and the uncertainty inherent to the UK’s post-pandemic economy.”

Find out more about Big Issue Invest and the ILE programme here.

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