Jenni Frazer

Education charity with bespoke solution

For Jewish News March 2024

At the end of a quiet and unassuming cul-de-sac in Hendon sits a quiet, but revolutionary, Jewish social enterprise. It’s safe to say that Gateways, an alternative kind of education facility for young people who have struggled to find their place in mainstream schools, is both unassuming and revolutionary — and that’s just the way the 10-year-old charity likes it.

Inside the one-storey building, whose other half is occupied by the children’s charity, Norwood, all is calm and peaceful, as befits Gateways’ low-key approach. Dominating the entry area, with its break-out spaces for students to relax or eat, is a truly envy-making state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, presided over by food writer Judi Rose, daughter of the legendary Evelyn.

Around the corner is a wonderfully kitted-out gym, complete with top-of-the-range equipment and an inviting punchbag. And down the corridor, there is a line of individual classrooms, each — on JN’s visit — holding one or two students, as they get the tailored attention that they need.

That word, ”tailored”, is apt, since Gateways founder Laurence Field says the whole idea is to offer a “bespoke” solution for each student.

Gateways began life at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, then based at Ivy House in Golders Green. Field, who trained to be a teacher, said that part of his LJCC role was to work with schools. “I found a pattern with all the schools — that there was always a cohort of young people who were on the roll, but not attending. I was told that such students were struggling, had different issues and challenges, and that the school could not address these problems properly.”

Field found that this was a common theme with every school. “It became very evident to me that there was a gap here.” At the time, there was a film-making studio in Ivy House and so Field wrote a proposal, and got seed money (from the Jewish Youth Fund), to launch a 10 week film-making evening course for these disaffected students. He was warned that his prospective film students were unlikely to conform to a structure of attendance or participation. But they did, with great enthusiasm, and Field realised he was on to something.

“As we worked with these young people it became clear that they didn’t just want to come on a course, they wanted accreditation.” Field decided to expand his basic model, recruited a small team of staff, and offered day-time courses to 15 and 16-year-olds. “We realised it wasn’t just vocational courses needed, but also basic maths and English”.

Once LJCC merged with JW3, Field and his team moved to the Finchley Road community centre, giving Gateways, formally launched in January 2014 in co-ordination with Hasmonean Boys and Girls schools, Menorah Grammar, and the Boys’ Clubhouse charity, much more space and flexibility. King Charles, paying a visit to JW3 only months into his reign, met Gateways students from the hair and beauty course — bright, confident and determined young women who were a world away from their problems in mainstream schools.

In 2016 Gateways’ team received a massive grant from a trust of £400,000, enabling them to do much more about meeting the demand which had been building up as more schools heard about their work.

“The focus of what we do is young people struggling with social, emotional and mental health challenges”, says Field, noting that most of the students often drop out of mainstream education not because of learning disabilities, but because sometimes the pressure of a full-on school environment is too much for them.

The Gateways intake — presently part-time — includes some students who have previously stopped attending regular school altogether. Every student must be referred, says head teacher Sasha Sharpe, “and it has to be a professional referral — it can be a school, a therapist, a psychiatrist, CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, the NHS services that assess and treat young people with emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties) — basically anyone other than the parent.” Nevertheless, she and Field say that almost every week there is a desperate phone call from a parent who does not know how to persuade their child back into education.

Field says: “When we get the calls from the parents, they are at crisis point. The young person, here, will find themself in a safe space where they can learn. It’s not a question of them having been dragged kicking and screaming here. They want to be here. For the first time ever, they’ve found themselves in a space where they’re not judged, but are encouraged and celebrated. They can function and get their qualifications”.

There aren’t just teachers at Gateways, but a whole “pastoral welfare department”, too, including therapists and psychologists. And every staff member is carefully recruited so that they must be “personable and engaging” in their ability to deal with students.

Whereas originally Gateways was only working with 15-16-year olds, now there are two groups of students, broadly 14-18-year-olds and a second cohort aged 18-25. Some are working towards GCSE or A-levels, while others — such as some strictly Orthodox students who have never mastered secular subjects — are tackling basic English and maths. Still others are studying vocational subjects such as photography or IT, and getting qualifications as they do so.

The kitchen provides singularly tailored teaching to tell students how to cook and shop for themselves, introducing them to store-cupboard ingredients and encouraging imaginative meals. There’s money management, too, and a life skills programme.

“When they come to us,” says Field, “their confidence is at rock bottom. In previous settings, they’ve been failures. They come here and for the first time they feel they can achieve, interact with peers and make friendships, get qualifications”. Sharpe says that most students stay with Gateways for between a year and two years — and some do go back into full-time education.

Elianna Green, who graduated last year from Gateways, is now a student at Elstree Screen Arts. Speaking at the charity’s stakeholders’ launch event, she said: “Due to my medical challenges, I frequently experience severe pain and fatigue. It affects my mobility, concentration and exhaustion, which caused difficulties with my school life, including anxiety about missing lessons and ultimately missing school for weeks at a time.

“At Gateways I felt comfortable and assured. I had the option to sit my exams over several years. With the support from Gateways and their flexibility, I was able to focus on each individual subject without getting overwhelmed – with a very personalised schedule.

“Gateways nourished my physical and mental health conditions, without seeing this as the only thing that defines me. They made me feel like a person again and always treated me with respect.”

Presently there are 55 students on the Gateways roll, split around 60-40 between boys and girls. Every student will pay a subsidised fee and there is also funding from local education authorities via the Education Health Care Plan. The charity also receives money from donors and trusts (it was funding from the Wohl and Ronson Foundations which led to Gateways’ move to Hendon), with a long-term aim of becoming more financially sustainable.

Inevitably, the success of Gateways within the Jewish school structure in London has led to interest from elsewhere, and there are talks underway with people in Manchester, to see whether it would be viable to set up a Gateways in the north.

In just 10 short years, Gateways has shown that it is more than possible to make the improbable happen.

  • 10 March, 2024
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