Fourteen years ago, an abandoned church on Tower Road in Hindhead, Surrey, became the start of something special, and for student’s past, present and future it’s become potentially life-changing. The church is where Stepping Stones School first began, a school started by COINS Foundation for children with mild to moderate disabilities struggling to cope in mainstream education. A victim of its own success, Stepping Stones quickly developed a reputation for being able to bring out the best in their students. With their modified curriculum and flexible approach to teaching, demand increased beyond their maximum capacity and with that, the need to expand into a bigger site was evident.
mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Today marks the two-year anniversary of the official opening of Undershaw, the former home of Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Inspired by the impact that Stepping Stones School was having, the DFN Foundation stepped in and their support meant that this fantastic building was purchased and converted to offer state of the art facilities for the students. Just a short walk away is the Tower Road site, which now is home to the primary students, with Undershaw taking a secondary school role as well as acting as a base for the younger students to use their improved facilities when needed. Although the school works to enable students to reach their academic potential, their goals are much broader than this. Many of the students may struggle with confidence or anxiety, this can affect their ability to socialise and brings with it a risk of isolation. Stepping Stones strive to support social development as well as academic achievement, which is a vital element during their time at school and afterwards, where it can affect potential employment and their social life. Past student, Amie Humphries who recently achieved a first class honours from the University of Kent, credits Stepping Stones for preparing her for coping with more independence and her vast achievements since leaving:
I used to hide behind my long hair and talk through my mum rather than directly to people. I would not be where I am today without going to Stepping Stones School.Amie Humphries
This concept of a well-rounded education extends beyond the grounds of Stepping Stones where the school has become a catalyst for other initiatives. Surrey Para Games (formerly known as Waverley Para Games) is a multi-sport disability event that began following the success of London 2012 Paralympic Games. Its aim is to try to extend the awareness of individuals with disabilities and their participation in sport. The event, which COINS Foundation continues to support, has increased in numbers since its debut in 2014, and has attracted support from a number of local athletes, clubs and schools. This year, an emphasis has been placed on year-round participation in sport, so that we can build on this fantastic event to encourage the breaking down of some of the existing barriers that families, schools and clubs are facing. Stepping Stones have played a vital role in this initiative as has Paralympic champion and Surrey games ambassador, Rachel Morris MBE, who also visits the school to work with the students on a one-to-one basis.
With all aspects of their school life catered for, it was a natural progression to look beyond their education and prepare the students for life and employment after leaving Stepping Stones, with a Post-16 Programme. Our social enterprise café, the Cookie Bar is the first step in their work experience ladder, where students have the opportunity to learn new skills in a safe and forgiving environment. The profits from the Cookie Bar are used to support the school’ and other overseas projects and volunteers and local consumers and subscribers to monthly cookies deliveries help to ensure the success of the programme.
An important stage for many, once students have demonstrated that they are able to cope with this more familiar and protected environment, they are then able to look at other work experience placements that may be more in line with their own interests and what they would like to do in the future. As part of this programme, student mentors assist with daily planning, preparation and transport challenges until the student has developed the skills and the confidence to tackle these independently. Several students have experienced either work experience opportunities or, for some, employment in our COINS Global office in Slough or working with our media production company, Free Bird Film, but there is a great need for more companies to come forward to support this programme.
It has been one step towards my dream of eventually working as a member of a team in a professional business environment and I have loved every minute of it.Sorcha Galvin - Ex Stepping Stones student on her work experience at COINS Global
New initiative, Project Search, also aims to address the currently high unemployment levels of individuals with disabilities. As well as offering supported job placement, their programmes also assist with developing skills required for completing a CV and job searches. Project Search is funded by the DFN Foundation following on the success of the Undershaw project. COINS Foundation have committed to grants over the next five years, which will support the programme and COINS Global will also be offering placements alongside promoting the programme within the construction sector.
With all elements, more support is necessary to both maintain the current offerings as well as to drive programmes forwards and look towards future growth. In order for this to be possible, more companies are required who have the facilities and the willingness to be flexible in order to help these students and young adults to reach their potential. Stepping Stones has become more than academia, it offers the chance for personal growth, to improve social skills and develop the skills that stay with you far beyond graduating and lead to fulfilling lives.