Sandwell Valley School: A class above

Independent and funded socially, Sandwell Valley School is building opportunities for the most marginalised pupils...

Monday morning – a time of tired sighs and sluggish indifference for much of the country. But at Sandwell Valley School in the West Midlands, the pupils have a spring in their step, genuinely eager for the week ahead. How have the teachers here pulled off the near-impossible?

Sandwell, in the Black Country town of West Bromwich, is a school with a difference. Independent without relying on expensive fees, it offers teenagers who may have toiled and floundered at other local schools a second chance to gain the skills and qualifications they need for life ahead.

The pupils want to be here. Many have been through tough times in the state education system or have struggled to attend school at all. But having signed up for Sandwell’s vocational-focused approach to learning, with chances to take part in placements and apprenticeships with local businesses, the students are keen to make the most of a unique chance.

Some might have been bullied, some have had a lot of difficulties in their families, and so they haven’t been able to focus on school

“In many cases it’s not been a case of the students letting themselves down so much as the education system letting them down,” explains Mim Hall, the school principal. “Some might have been bullied, some have had a lot of disruption and difficulties in their families, and so they haven’t been able to focus on school. But I see the strength in them, and the potential, and so do the other teachers here.”

The Big Issue takes a lot of pride in the fact that through Big Issue Invest’s early investment we played a part in the set-up. It began with an organisation called Sandwell Community Caring Trust, one of the first local authority spin-offs. The idea was that they would take over failing local services and make them work.

“They were the first wave of organisations to move people out of long-term institutional care and into care in their own homes,” says Daniel Wilson-Dodd, head of lending at Big Issue Invest.


The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

“As a society we were stuck in the Victorian age until very recently – warehousing people in hospitals on the edge of town – barbaric and expensive. So, BII lent them money to buy an empty care home, called Hall Green. As soon as they bought it, they moved 40 elderly people from a decrepit and dangerous building down the road. Care companies are crippled by sickness and staff turnover costs. Sandwell pay their staff well and treat them good, meaning sickness and staff turnover is low. They give staff the space to care for people.”

Worried by the lack of job opportunities in the area, the Trust’s chief executive Geoff Walker wanted to provide the chance for well-built training and employment with his organisation. In 2010 they started offering part-time learning to young people who had largely missed out on formal education but wanted to gain some National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). From this the now independent, Ofsted-approved school grew.

The school then began to offer students the chance to do GSCEs, encouraged by the local authority; education bosses found Sandwell a great place to refer pupils struggling on the margins of the state system. This autumn, Ofsted approved Sandwell to operate as an independent school. It now has almost 100 young people out on apprenticeships and almost 100 others in the classroom.

“We have smaller class sizes than most other schools, so we get a chance to work with the young people close up and see what their problems might have been,” explains Hall. “We’re not expecting perfection from anyone on day one but we want them to realise this is an opportunity and show commitment. We encourage them to really believe in themselves.”

“It’s a fantastic way of addressing the exclusion of young people and helps prevent social problems before they might become costly later on,” says Wilson-Dodd.

Emily Deeley, a 15-year-old Year 11 student, started at Sandwell in September and is now thriving at her studies for the first time. “It’s been a lot better for me than mainstream school,” she says. “I had been struggling a lot in my last school, involved in a few problems and wanted to put those slip-ups behind me. Even on my very first day here I felt really comfortable and found that the teachers really take time to listen.”

Emily is keen for a career in the Armed Forces but is preparing to go to college to study public services first. “I can see a career path for the first time,” she says.

On my very first day here I felt really comfortable and found that the teachers really take time to listen

Year 12 student Shahan Mohammed is also optimistic. The 17-year-old is studying for an NVQ in Business Studies, and GCSEs in English and maths, having come to the school last year. “I had moved around between a few different schools but I had a few mental health and emotional problems at the time, and I struggled to settle down anywhere,” he explains. “But here I felt at home straight away. I found all the teachers really supportive. After struggling for confidence, I now feel like I’m doing well.”

“We’re delighted by the success of the school,” says Geoff Walker. “It has had great support from businesses keen to offering training, and the local authority really saw the possibilities of it early on.” Such schemes show a way ahead, says The Big Issue Group’s Chair Nigel Kershaw. “It shows how social enterprises, run by people who know their own local communities, can transform lives.”

Mim Hall is excited by the possibilities ahead for Sandwell Valley and by the fact that several of its alumni are now in higher education. One of last year’s pupils achieved seven A*s in their GCSEs.

“As a society we’re really not doing what we should if we let our young people fall through the cracks,” she says. “Hopefully what we’re doing is preventing problems that might emerge in our students’ lives later on. Education is so important.”


With councils hit by cuts, social enterprises and voluntary groups are stepping in to give children the support they need…

Enabling Enterprise was started by Tom Ravenscroft, a former London secondary school teacher frustrated that pupils were leaving school unprepared for the corporate world. His venture works with some of Britain’s top employers to help familiarise teenagers with business skills, allowing some to plant the seeds of their own small businesses while still in school.

CoderDojo is a network of IT professionals who volunteer their time at after-school clubs, hoping to pass on coding skills and inspire the next generation of computer geniuses. With coding now on the curriculum, schools are keen to encourage the additional expertise. There are now more than 100 CoderDojo clubs in the UK.

Teach First is a non-profit organisation that helps recruit and train top professionals to go in and teach in low-income areas across the country. And Teach First’s latest venture – the Innovation Unit – gives people with bright new ideas advice on how to get the best out of lessons to develop them in the classroom.