As Stepping Stones and Undershaw open their doors for the start of a new term, many students are welcomed back to continue their learning and development, but for those new attendees it could be the start of a new chapter. Stepping Stones opened in 2004 as a school for students with mild to moderate disabilities but its overwhelming success called for expansion, the site of choice being Arthur Conan Doyle’s former residence, Undershaw. With the support of DFN Foundation, Undershaw was purchased and renovated into what is now a state of the art educational facility, operating as the secondary school for the older students and a learning hub for all. Many of the students in attendance previously struggled with the standardised approach offered in mainstream education, leaving them disheartened and their potential untapped. The flexible curriculum offered at Stepping Stones and Undershaw draws on their strengths, building their confidence to tackle their weaknesses and ultimately enabling them to thrive in their progress.

However, the team behind this success story are looking beyond graduation, where for many students learning to pass their exams is just a small part of the skills they need in order to be able to cope and succeed at everyday tasks in adult life.

The Cookie Bar in Hindhead is an integral part of the success story, acting as a safe and forgiving environment for students to gain valuable work experience, it has become the first step in pursuing their chosen career. The Cookie Bar staff are skilled in supporting these students with any additional needs they might have but also in recognising when they need to be pushed and challenged outside their comfort zone. This, combined with the understanding nature of the customers and the slightly slower pace than your average coffee chain, provides students with the necessary time and setting to absorb and practise new skills.

A fundamental stage in students’ work experience programme, The Cookie Bar is (as the school’s name suggests) a stepping-stone to a career and a future of their choosing. After demonstrating the necessary skills, reliability and confidence to progress, students are given the chance to participate in work experience in other businesses, closer to their individual interests and outside the more familiar setting that The Cookie Bar brings. With this, creates an unfamiliar environment for students, with increased challenges and pressure that they may not have previously experienced. Alongside the trials of a new work place, students also have to cope with the additional requirements that align with taking this next step. What many will consider merely a monotonous task such as catching a bus or making their lunch, for some this can be at best, a stressful experience and at worst, a reason to stay home. With this in mind, part of their education covers aspects of independence such as staying away from home, cooking skills and navigating their own schedules.

As with any group of individuals, each year will see students with a vast array of interests and future plans, therefore, it is important that they continue to get new companies on board to be able to offer a range of placements. Having already established a number of strong contacts in various industries, companies are evidently acknowledging how different individuals, given the right opportunity, could be a benefit to their business. In order to support the transition into paid employment, apprenticeships or outside work experience, some students benefit from having 1:1 support from a mentor, enabling them to maintain their confidence whilst challenging them in new situations. However, for this to be successful, quality mentors have to be found and trained to enable them to support the young person in a way that best works for that individual.

Which brings us to the second function of The Cookie Bar, where operating as a social enterprise 100% of their profits are reinvested directly back into charity with 50% going to Stepping Stones School and contributing to support this mentoring programme to take place. Starting in 2004 with just a handful of students, the extreme growth of the school and its students syncs up perfectly with the growth of impact they are having on individuals’ lives. Having established a method to make school life more enjoyable, they’ve also taken on the phenomenal task of preparing students not just for their exams, but for every step of their life and career afterwards.