Changemakers: Sophie Maxwell went from school dropout to college founder

A stranger took a chance on Sophie and helped her believe in herself again. She tells The Big Issue all she ever wanted since that moment was to do the same for other kids

There are around 788,000 young people not in education, employment or training in the UK, and Sophie Maxwell is on a mission to help every single one. Her college, the Really NEET Project, is a hopeful alternative for vulnerable young people who can’t manage mainstream education. They might be homeless, care leavers, young parents, struggling with substance misuse or victims of abuse. Whatever their circumstances, 160 of them benefit from the Project each year. And no one understands their struggle better than her.

Until age 14, Sheffield-based Maxwell suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse at home. For two years, her mother moved her and her sisters up and down the country “trying to get away from him”. Later, a domestic violence team told Maxwell her mum couldn’t meet her needs. And so, aged 16, she moved into a women’s refuge. Three months later, a friend died of an overdose sat in the same room as her.

Maxwell spent the next two years homeless, alternating between crashing in hostels and sleeping rough. “I had no education, I had been abused, I was homeless and had no contact with my family,” she says. “It was really quite a desperate situation.”

By 18, she’d had enough. It was time to reach out for help and hope someone pulled her to safety. “I made the decision to just walk into my local college and say, ‘Listen, I don’t know what’s possible but I really want my education.‘ What can you do?

“They were quite dismissive to begin with. But there was this guy, Paul, listening in as I explained my story to the receptionist. He walked over and offered me a place on his sport course, then and there, and promised me the support I needed.”

Paul Casson made sure Maxwell had transport to college, he supported her studies, and he taught her to box. It was in the ring that he told Maxwell he had an aggressive form of stomach cancer. “Paul literally spent the last two years of his life making me believe in myself and my education,” she says. She went on to study leisure events management at Sheffield Hallam University.

After graduating, Maxwell worked with disadvantaged schoolchildren. “I thought about how willing Paul was to support me, a stranger, and I wondered if I could be that for someone else,” she says.

She took no salary for the first two years, instead working as an athletics coach and a cleaner,

She found work in secondary schools mentoring excluded students through GCSEs and realised that these kids needed longer-term, intensive support.

“That’s when the idea for my own college, for the kids who fall through the cracks, sprang up.” The Really NEET Project was launched in 2011, with Maxwell as the only staff member.

She took no salary for the first two years, instead working as an athletics coach and a cleaner when she wasn’t at the Project. Today now manages a £600,000 turnover.

The main programme, Inspiring Change, spans two years. For 16 hours a week, 16 to 24-year-olds referred by mental health or social services work towards GCSE-equivalents in English and maths, as well as vocational qualifications like woodwork and art. Students are supported back into mainstream education or into employment.

There are some features of the college that Maxwell was determined to implement. Pick-up schemes, for example, transport students from their homes, hostels or refuges and get them home safely too. Youth workers at the college take students to counselling, help sort out their benefits, advocate for housing for them or make sure a hotel room is paid for – the ‘no young person sleeping rough’ policy is non-negotiable.

It’s such an honour when a young person allows you to work with them,

“It’s absolutely incredible. It’s such an honour when a young person allows you to work with them,” Maxwell says. But relying on public funding has been tricky, Maxwell says, so she came up with a plan for the college to become sustainable.

”These young people have been let down by education. To even consider taking an exam is a scary prospect.” So the college started producing escape room-inspired exams, with everything from zombie apocalypse, escape from Alcatraz and into-Wonderland themes.

“The kids were rating it eight out of 10 for enjoyment,” she says. “For an exam!” The pass rate soared, too.

Really NEET has partnered with tech company Accenture to set up a separate organisation which will produce teaching resources, special exams and bespoke training, all under a subscription offered to colleges and schools across the country. The cash earned will be invested right back into the college.

But Maxwell has her eyes set on even bigger challenges. She wants to change the funding system for educational programmes in the UK, because current criteria – like work experience that students must attend regularly, for 16 hours a week minimum – immediately rule out initiatives set up for young people impacted by poverty. “What we’ve got is a funding system that fuels inequality. The most vulnerable young people in our country cannot access education.

“It’s about being a voice for the young people,” Maxwell says. “To see changes on a national level that make education inclusive to all.”