Raising the bar for Alternative Education – Stone Soup Academy scoops Centre of the Year Award

Designed to recognise a centre that has gone over and above to help its learners, the Centre of the Year category in our Aspiration Awards was historically only open to schools and colleges. This year however, we opened the competition up to training providers as well in order to capture the diverse range of phenomenal centres operating across the UK.

This year’s winner is the Stone Soup Academy in Nottingham, an Alternative Provision Free School Academy for learners aged 11-18, which wowed the judges with its innovative approach to learner engagement to help young people who have lost their way to turn their lives around.

Creating unimagined futures

An Ofsted rated ‘Outstanding’ Alternative Provision for students who are either at risk of, or who have been permanently excluded from mainstream school, Stone Soup Academy has been helping learners to make a fresh start in education since 2012.

Initially starting its life as a small community project, the Academy has grown exponentially in the past six years and now supports over 80 learners at any one time from the heart of Nottingham City Centre in the historic Lace Market.

Offering a healthy mix of vocational and academic qualifications, Stone Soup’s primary goal is to “create unimagined futures” for its learners, to equip them with the skills that they need to succeed, backed up by qualifications and to instil in them the confidence and self-belief so that they can go on to great things in life and be valuable members of our communities.

Reinstalling self-belief

When learners arrive at Stone Soup Academy they’re disengaged from education and often feel failed by the system as they failed to thrive in mainstream schools.

“Students come to us looking at the floor they don’t think they can achieve anything,” explained Kerrie Henton, Principal at Stone Soup Academy.

“They think they’re failures, their parents’ think they’ve failed and they’ve got a very poor impression of what education is about.

“First and foremost for us it is about building relationships with our young people, to gain their trust and fill them with positive belief, so that by the time they leave us, they’re looking at the sky and looking at what they can achieve and deserve to achieve.”

Building relationships to re-engage learners

Communication is absolutely key to the success of this initiative, which is why Stone Soup Academy has devised its own unique teaching structure.

“We are different to mainstream schools as our staff structure is flat, to us, a teacher is of the same importance as a member of our engagement team, as one cannot change students lives in isolation, we work in tandem,” Kerrie continued.

“Within our model, our engagement team coach learners and build relationships with them based on trust and understanding, so that we can support them through any issues they’re having and help to keep them in the classroom. Our teachers teach but in a way that is personalised for each student, with high expectations and aspirations. We set the bar high and year on year, our young people do not disappoint.

“Keeping learners engaged is paramount to promoting positive outcomes, which is why we offer such a range of different qualifications from NCFEs, to GCSEs and BTECs. Building strong relationships and communicating with learners is central to this, but we also operate a Dojo rewards scheme where students are financially rewarded for attendance, punctuality and good behaviour. We work on the premise that we are preparing our students for work, so we created a model that replicates these work based expectations in the academy.

“When students reach the end of year 11, they are given the funds to put towards something which will help them find employment, like driving lessons or further education.”

Preparing learners for life and work

Providing learners with not only the right mind-set for success, but also the right skills to achieve in their chosen career is really important to Stone Soup Academy. To provide learners with the best possible chance of finding employment or going on to further study at college or university, Stone Soup has built up relationships with businesses around Nottingham, including the likes of John Lewis, Crowne Plaza and Nottingham Trent Cricket Club to create its own elongated work experience programme for learners.

“Work-based learning is really important to us,” Kerrie said.

“To provide something impactful which would really give our learners an understanding of the workplace, we devised a work experience placement programme which would span an entire term, not just the standard week that mainstream school pupils are entitled to. Learners would go to their work placement one day per week where they would complete work tasks and also complete modules towards their NCFE Award in Exploring Occupational Studies for the Workplace qualification.

“At the end of the term, learners have tangible work experience, as well as experience in workplace learning and a qualification to back it all up. For some of our learners, this is invaluable as they take their first steps on the career ladder and can really help their CV to stand out from a crowd.

“We’re extremely proud that 100% of our learners who completed their studies this year, even against the backdrop of the pandemic, are going on to further education, training or employment.”

Aspiring to future growth

Looking ahead to the future, Stone Soup Academy has a comprehensive five-year plan for growing the Academy further to help impact a greater number of learners, from within the Nottingham area and beyond. The Academy’s Principal hopes that winning the Centre of the Year Award will help them to achieve this vision.

“We entered the Aspiration Awards because it resonated so closely with what we do. When our learners come to us, they have no aspirations of their own, so we have to aspire for them,” Kerrie explained.

“It’s always lovely to get a pat on the back for a job well done, so winning the award is truly fantastic, but for us, it’s all about the learners - about celebrating their achievements and demonstrating what can be achieved with the right level of support in the hope that it might inspire more learners to look at the sky instead of the floor.”

You can find out more about Stone Soup Academy at www.stonesoupacademy.org.uk/.

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