Teachers at London high school turn special needs into employable skills with WE and a career-focused curriculum.
Teachers at London high school turn special needs into employable skills with WE and a career-focused curriculum.
The education system in the United Kingdom is failing a generation of young people with special needs. That’s the conclusion from a landmark 2019 government report that heard from 70 witnesses and took statements from 700 more. The message from children, teachers, parents and experts was clear: the system needs to change.
One school in London is modeling that change. Using a new method of project-based learning, intrepid teachers—supported by WE—are showing how special needs students can discover new opportunities and forge a path to future employment.
This is their story.
A mother’s concern, a teacher’s plan
Debbie Stone—a mother and teacher—worries that school let her son down. Now, a decade after he graduated, she is working with WE Schools to make sure the same doesn’t happen to her students.
At 25 years old, Stone’s son is living at home and struggling to find work. On the autism spectrum, he started in a mainstream school before moving to one for students with special needs. Neither, Stone estimates, “was a great success.”
He doesn’t have the interview skills or the confidence to pursue a career, she explains. What he does have is a deep desire for meaning and few prospects of finding employment. In that, he’s not alone.
A sense of purpose animates peoples’ lives, contributing to happiness and self-esteem. That explains why an unprecedented number of millennials are looking for jobs that have a positive impact on the world. That same desire exists in young people with disabilities, though they face additional obstacles. While there are more than 1.2 million students with special educational needs in the United Kingdom, running the spectrum from dyslexia to severe medical conditions, just 6 percent will find work.
The systemic hurdles are deeply personal and top-of-mind for Stone in her job at a special needs school in Harrow, a borough in the northwest of London. As the community engagement manager at Shaftesbury High School, she is responsible for improving the students’ experience and supporting their growth. What she desires above all is for her students to see beyond the limited horizon society has given them, in order to chart a path toward self-sufficiency.
That’s why she was so eager to work with WE Schools. Discovering it three years ago through word of mouth, she says, “I realized right away it could have a huge impact on the way we were doing things here.”
The WE Schools mandate is learning through social action. By opening students’ eyes to pressing issues in their school, community and around the world, young people are encouraged to use their newfound knowledge to create positive change on everything from the environment to universal accessibility.
The latter is a passion of Stone’s. For years she bristled against the unspoken societal expectation that special needs students are incapable of doing things themselves. Seated in her office, surrounded by plaques of students’ accomplishments, letters of accolades and photos of smiling children, she talks of a different reality. “There’s a reason tech companies hire people with Asperger’s and autism. They are capable of doing anything,” she explains. Discovering the WE Schools service-learning program offered an opportunity to prove that Shaftesbury students can stand on their own and help others.
After a facilitator from WE visited the school to talk about social action, Stone and the team at WE helped students devise a plan. Their first project was to revitalize the school garden. Stone helped the students discover ways to use their interest in gardening to address community needs by growing vegetables for the school kitchen and a local care home, in tandem with starting a composting program. Students learned horticulture, math and teamwork skills through brainstorming for the project, and practiced drawing up budgets and handling logistical planning before sharing their big idea with the school. The team at WE were so impressed, six students were invited to City Hall to present the project to a panel of judges for the chance to win a £1,000 grant through the Team London Young Ambassadors program.
“These young people, who rarely go out, came all the way to central London,” Stone recalls of the experience, emotion creeping into her voice. The journey itself was a learning opportunity: navigating buses and the tube, paying fares, interacting with strangers—daily routines for some, but new and valuable exposure for young people too often dissuaded from independence. And then came the event: hundreds of students and teachers from schools across London, all vying for support for their projects. “You should have seen them, standing in front of a panel of judges, microphones in hand with such confidence,” Stone gushes. “They were brilliant.”
The judges agreed and awarded them a grant. “It was an eye-opening, lightbulb moment for the whole school,” says Stone. “In an instant, it proved our kids can do this.”
This was the momentum Stone had been waiting for and just the beginning of the student’s journey with WE.
Change sweeps the school
If the story stopped there, it would be impressive. Stone and WE were opening students’ eyes to new issues and helping them forge new possibilities. But Stone knew that all Shaftesbury students could benefit from the project-based approach. For that, she needed the administration’s support.
Then came Matt Silver and, with him, a chance to remake the entire school.
Silver became head teacher at Shaftesbury just as the school was beginning to see the impact of WE—impacts he already knew how to complement with his own big plans. He wanted to redefine the very purpose of education, focusing on emotional intelligence, intrinsic motivation, autonomy and meaning. From his experience, those areas in particular have long been neglected in special needs education.
He spent years in the classroom before transitioning to leadership, and understands the quandary teachers are in across the UK. The immense pressure to chase government ratings and deliver test scores is coupled with resource strain and a growing mental health crisis among students dealing with anxiety. But he also has a trove of personal experiences forming his bedrock belief that special needs students can achieve, learn and thrive.
His faith stems from annual trips he took with his father, starting at just nine years old, volunteering with an organization that takes special needs students to France. Those overseas experiences allowed young people who’d been treated differently their entire life to discover their voice and independence.
Years later, when Silver entered the classroom, he immediately started doing project-based learning. With it, he saw success reaching previously unengaged students, reinforcing his belief that intrinsic motivation is key to helping young people work on their strengths. He brought that philosophy to Shaftesbury, where Stone’s journey with WE was already underway, and the two found natural and powerful allies in each other.
Together they set about creating a sea change in the school. Now, learning is built around social projects. Mornings are dedicated to curriculum lessons, while afternoons see students envisioning, planning and leading projects that give back to the school, community and world. Projects run the gamut from food sciences, where students learn to run a café and study the connection between climate change and food production, to coding, mechanics, woodworking and sports management. Students also gain life experience by putting their new skills to work in the community at internships facilitated by the school, training that flies in the face of traditional beliefs that would see these young people stay out of the work force after finishing school due to “handicaps.”
“This is not just using football to teach maths,” explains Silver. “This is students discovering meaning, contributing to something and realizing that they are not just a special needs student who takes. They can give something back.”
The results speak for themselves. Every upper-year student is enrolled in work experience and there’s been a fourfold increase in the number of students going on to vocational college. On top of this, behavioral disruptions are down 83 percent school-wide, while attendance is up 5 percent. The school has doubled the number of qualifications recognized by an exam board, meaning more students are leaving with opportunities to further their studies or get a job. More parents are getting involved in the school too, with their attendance at meetings and events more than doubling to 90 percent. And, as proof that the students are not only capable of supporting themselves but also of giving back, their activities have benefited 15 charities.
From where Stone and Silver stand, this is exactly the inspiring school-wide change they sought to ignite.
WE Day changes a life and shines a light on Shaftesbury
WE Day is a stadium-sized celebration of doing good. Held in cities across North America and the UK, the events see millions of students gather to hear from visionary speakers of all stripes, including young change-makers just like them. A spectacle of lights, pounding music and inspiring speeches, the big show can be overwhelming for students with special needs, who often thrive in calm, quiet and structured environments.
Given this, Stone’s first reaction when given a block of tickets to WE Day UK three years ago was to worry about how her students would adjust to the experience. One student in particular gave her pause: Jevounghn Gregg-Fuller. Then in Year 10, he was one of her most challenging students, struggling in school and with behavioral issues. He talked of hurting himself and was a near constant disruption in the classroom. But those concerns were also the reason Stone wanted to take him; she knew what an experience like WE Day could mean to a young person so many others had given up on.
In the end, Stone decided to take students to WE Day, and is happy she did; it was a game changer for all, including Jevounghn. “He sat next to me, his eyes were fixed. He didn’t move, didn’t speak, just soaked it in,” she recalls of watching the show with him. “At one point he turned to me and said, ‘Mrs. Stone, I want to be on that stage next year.’”
She heard him loud and clear.
With her help, Jevounghn worked all year on his behavior and emotional growth. He also trained with the schools’ performing arts group, writing a poem about his mental health struggles and getting comfortable on stage. Before long, the student who once disrupted class more often than he contributed became a leader in the school. His violent outbursts stopped. For the first time, Jevounghn saw himself as having value; his contribution and voice mattered.
Moved by his development, Stone worked with the WE team to get Jevounghn to WE Day to share his journey. When he took the stage, “it was a perfect moment for our school,” she says. Jevounghn’s presence on stage and his emotional story about special needs made all Shaftesbury students feel seen and heard. It made them believe in their own voice. “We started with one project for one group and WE suddenly became part of the school DNA. We took a boy to WE Day who was so inspired, it saved him. It turned his life around—it literally saved him.”
Before Jevounghn stepped on the WE Day stage, few people had high expectations or hopes for him. Now, since leaving Shaftesbury—equipped with newfound confidence and aspirations—he is an inspiring advocate for special needs, working with local doctors to help them understand how people with autism can feel stigmatized or mistreated by the medical community.
The future is bright—trust in young people
Meanwhile across the UK, the government report about the failure of special education is making waves, leaving educators searching for a new model—one teachers are confident they’ve found in Shaftesbury.
Silver is building a broad coalition of teachers and administrators, policymakers and leaders—including Sir Ken Robinson, of Ted Talk fame—to assess what the changes at Shaftesbury could mean for other schools looking to break negative patterns and lift the stigma around special needs students. According to Silver, the solution is clear: place purpose at the center of learning to unlock students’ potential.
Stone has taken her own path to the same conclusions. She can’t help but think of her son when she sees her students thrive. “If his school had this kind of approach, he would have had a better outcome,” she explains. Where one system failed, she sees potential for another to succeed. “With special needs students, you often have to find that one thing the grabs them. For us, that’s WE.”
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.