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Interview with Chris Irwin & James Lowe – from Inspirational School Edstart

In this interview on The Logros Show – in association with The Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce – Lee Dinsdale talks to Chris irwin & James Lowe from Edstart.  Edstart is an independent specialist school based out in Salford, Bolton and Bury.  To find out why they exist and what they aim to do for young people, read on.

Interview with Chris Irwin & James Lowe at Unity Radio – The Real Sound of the City.

Interview with Chris Irwin and James Lowe at Unity Radio – The Real Sound of the City.

Lee:  Good afternoon.  My name is Lee and this is the Logros Show in association with the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce only on Unity Radio – The Real Sound of The City.  We are broadcasting live here from Media City UK.  This week we are delighted to invite Chris Irwin and James Lowe who are directors of Edstart, which is an independent specialist school based out in Salford, Bolton and Bury.  Good afternoon Chris, I’m delighted that you have come in, and we are going to be getting in to the story of why you decided to set up this school.  First of all please tell us what actually is Edstart and what does it aim to do for young people?

Chris:  Ultimately we are a specialist school on a smaller scale.  We specialise in working with children of varying needs that for one reason or another struggle to engage in mainstream education.  They will come along to one of our settings, work in smaller groups with a higher staff to child ratio and get the support that they require whilst still being able to do the main curriculum as they would do in school.  They will achieve similar qualifications that they would do in school but will have that support mechanism and nurturing environment that a lot of our young people really need.

Lee:  I think in Salford or across the area there are quite a few alternative provisions, why do you think there is a need for this kind of education environment?

Children have varying needs and it could be a wide range of things from attendance, to young people experiencing trauma in their lives.  They can’t necessarily get the support from a mainstream school due to the number of young people and kids in those schools, so they will need a safe haven.  They need somewhere, where they can have one to one support in a less formal environment so that they can re-engage in education and get the care and support that they really need.

Lee:  What are some of key impacts, successes or outcomes that the school wants to have for young people?

Chris:  It’s a difficult one.  We are judged in the same way that schools are, so our year eleven students will achieve GCSE exams and we do very well with that.  I think last year we had a ninety six per cent pass rate in maths and English, which is amazing given the background of the young people and their starting point when they join us.  It’s more the life skills that we are looking to develop in the young people.  Give them the aspiration of things that they can achieve after school like going into further education, going into an apprenticeship, finding a job and really challenging what they perceive life to be like.  Sometimes they come to us with very low aspirations and just thinking their life is going to be on the estate where they have grown up and they have seen drama and that is going to form their life.  We have got to try and challenge that thought process a little bit.

Lee:  Part of this show is always about understanding people’s stories.  Chris you are a social entrepreneur so when, where and why did you set the school up?  Let’s start with when?

The first school set up in 2009 purely out of chance really.  I finished as a professional rugby player in 2006 and I became a teacher.  The first school I worked at was Brookway High School in Wythenshawe.  In 2009 I got a phone call from assistant principal Pete Jones asking me to support him in working with these 12 hard to reach young children that were still part of their school and they didn’t want to exclude these young people, but were struggling to engage with them.  I agreed to it initially.  I worked with these 12 and it was a massive success.

Chris: We converted the old sports hall at Brookway which has now become Manchester Health Academy.  We changed the old changing rooms into a classroom to make it a formal learning space for these kids.  The kids achieved massively at the end of the year, engaged and the attendance was up and other schools wanted to be part of it at which point we needed a new base.

Lee:  So what inspired you to decide I’m not going back into normal employment?  I am going to do something very beneficial for the community?

Chris:  One reason is I like to have the autonomy to do certain things myself.  I like to make my own decisions on where I’m going.  I’m very good at working with challenging young people, I get a lot of joy from working with them and seeing them develop and progress in life.  For me it came quite naturally really.  The opportunity was there, I took it and we have grown year on year as a result of that.

Lee:  What do you believe are the key successes within the school to allow for that growth?

Chris:  Attendance, you need the kids to be present to learn and develop.  It’s the life skills and social skills that the kids will develop whilst with us.


Lee:  When you say life skills that can range across many different areas.  What would you say are some of the key life skills that you transfer to young people in this school?

Chris:  One of the first things I came across when I would take the young people out of our school setting into the community, was a number of them weren’t sure how to behave.  They weren’t sure what was appropriate and what type of behaviours were appropriate in the local community.  How to speak to people, how to be polite, courteous, and those kinds of things.  Those things that we as adults take for granted, I noticed were things we would have to teach these children.  Things like chucking a can of coke on the floor when you are walking round in a group or openly mocking a person on the other side of the road isn’t okay.  Those behaviours need to be challenged.  We need to be a good role model and to showcase how to behave and conduct yourself in these scenarios.  Kids pick these things up and I think all of sudden once they have got that respect there, they start altering their behaviours a little bit.

Lee:  That was my next question, transformations of behaviour.  So you are adopting a certain kind of behaviour which you may have been accustomed to due to your environment, where you are from, whether it’s cultural, parental or whatever the cause is.  Then you come along and show a different kind of behaviour and more of a role model.  How long does it take, and is there anything special that you need to do to embed in that young person to change and think, I do need to behave like this instead?

Yes, I think we need to be consistent with the message.  We understand it will take time and understand that the young person will continue to make mistakes.  So yes we need to be consistent with our message and continually show correct behaviours.  Things like opening the door for people, being thankful, show them respect, just basic things that we think would be basic, but unless you have been shown that you wouldn’t know.

Lee:  Now we are going to talk to James Lowe who is another director of Edstart and is one the most important people in the school.  James tell everyone what is your role at the school?

James:  Being an independent school we have a proprietorial body so that would be Chris and I.  We have a board of governors where we have some very experienced professionals.  Then myself as the head teacher, who is accountable to that board of governors to make sure we are using the public funds for the best purposes for the young people.

Lee:  We are going to get on to some key skills of forming  relationships, how to deal with challenging behaviour in a moment, but first of all explain how did you get involved in this kind of school rather than a normal mainstream school?

James:  It was absolutely organically and by chance.  Chris and I go back a long, long way from primary school playing sport against each other for our respective schools.  Following that we met each other at high school, formed a friendship and then really followed each other into the same teaching environment.  When Chris left the teaching practice to go and set up Edstart I think part of the plan, he’ll probably agree with me, was always for me to get on board once there was enough coming into the business.  Once we got involved we really expanded what Chris had started to build with one school and then we started working with another school.  We thought we would have a go at registering as an independent school with the department for education.  I’ll never forget day one of Ofsted coming in and saying so who is your head teacher?  I quickly threw my hand up in the air and said yes I will have that job!

Lee:  What is it that you like about your job?

James:  Going back to when Chris and I first started teaching it was the enjoyment we got from working with challenging behaviour and the characteristics and the colourful kids that we were working with in those groups who needed more support.  Learning was perhaps at the back of their mind and a safe environment was the first thing they were looking for.

Lee:  We were talking about that off air because we do a lot of similar work here at Unity Radio as well and it is the safe environment which is the key factor to start that positive relationship.  You mentioned that some of the young people in school can have challenging behaviour, how do you approach the first initial getting to know you to form that relationship and then maintain a positive relationship?

James:  The first thing that we always try and assist with young people is, we know what’s gone on, and we know the reasons why you are entering our environment.  However from this moment on it is a clean slate for you and it’s a fresh start.  That’s very important.

Lee:  How do they respond to that, by the way?

James:  From doing those meetings, and now I have some really skilled managers, so I don’t do them now, but it is seeing some relief in their eyes and seeing their parents who, are used to getting negative feedback from schools and the parents think, okay it does genuinely feel like a fresh start for them as a family, not just for the young person.

Lee:  Yes I’m sure the parents and the guardians go through a similar stress at the same time.  Once you go through those meetings what do you think some of the key skills are that the staff require?

James:  Relationships.  They have to have that ability to form relationships.  It’s patience, an understanding that young people have been through quite often a lot of trauma in their earlier lives.

Lee:  In your opinion from dealing with a lot of young people, looking at the teachers, what do you think are the key ingredients for a successful classroom environment?

James:  We’ve had some training over the last couple of years to try and aim to be a trauma inform school, understanding that the experiences of young people in earlier childhood will affect their outlook on education.  It will affect their needs, but also not forgetting, and as we establish now ten years as a school, it’s having some real understanding of special educational needs.  Also curriculum and understanding learning and additional needs.  It’s not just all about trauma; it’s about actually understanding medical conditions, health and emotions.

Lee:  You mentioned about trauma in the past and there is a saying that I believe in.  We only see through our past and therefore it can be quite challenging in order to see a different future, when you’ve had particular things happen to you in a particular way; so how do you maintain that trust to get a behaviour change?  We talked about some of the key things in terms of building positive relationships.  Patience, absolutely number one and I think patience in any kind of relationship is a feature.  We talk about the dos but what do you not do.  I’m sure you may have some inexperienced teachers potentially go into a car crash so to speak with a young person.  What are some of the things they do that they need to avoid?

James:  We do have some excellent staff and at this moment in time a full team of staff that have got every best intention for young people.  However sometimes they come in from different backgrounds.  We may see people coming in from secondary schools who have been operating with a certain behaviour policy that just isn’t applicable to an alternative provision setting.  We can’t be as black and white and have such a menu in our place.

Lee:  Just to be more specific what are some of the things that could go wrong, and again you could make that in everyday life.

James:  I don’t want to dwell too much on patience, but it is patience and understanding.  It’s not raising your voice. It’s picking your battles at the right moments and not embarrassing a child when they might be displaying negative behaviour for valid reasons, and they need some attention.  Pulling them up in front of their friends and trying to embarrass them would be the absolute worst thing you could do at that stage.

How To Get a Job at Edstart

Lee:  For those who are interested in getting into education, youth work, you may be a teacher and want to go into alternative provision, can you explain James what you are looking for?

James:  We are always on the lookout for good staff.

We are always on the lookout not necessarily for the finished article, but for people who are looking for an opportunity to work with young people who may have had similar experiences in their life.  They may have had difficulty in education and not having opportunities and they may want to see what doors we can open for young people through the provision.  We’ve had a few people come in on with youth qualifications, or with youth work backgrounds who have then progressed with us to become fully fledged teachers , managers and even gone on to teach in secondary schools.

Lee:  So you can support education with training needs on the job at the same time?  Anything else in terms of key attributes, I know we talked about patience?

James:   Patience, yes and I think one of the big things that frustrates me is people who say, oh I’ve had a tough life James.  I know what it’s like to be one of these kids who have not had the support.  You need a little bit more than that.  You need to still have a set of professional standards and just being a young person’s best friend, and just speaking a bit of lingo isn’t actually going to get you the success and results that we need as an independent school.  It’s having that relationship and understanding that young person, but being a role model and setting standards of behaviour.  That way you can really show a young person, actually this is what it is like to come from a difficult background but also be successful in a professional environment.

Lee:  If people listening want to contact you and they are looking for a new role, how do they do that?

James:  We are always on the lookout for people who want to get into our organisation and make a difference to young people, so follow us on social media, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the website  for opportunities that are often posted.

Achieving Excellence

Lee:   I’ve really been enjoying the show today.  We’ve been hearing all about what makes the school successful, but more importantly why it is an important asset in the community to re-engage young people who potentially have been told there are no other options.  Thanks very much for the work you do in Salford and across the area.  We are just going to finish off, as we do on this show finding out about achieving excellence.  What is your opinion Chris on achieving excellence both from a business perspective and then also from an individual perspective please?

Chris:  I think I can answer that together really both personal and professionally in business.  The key thing for me is passion.  You have got to be passionate about what you are doing and what you are striving for.  Have that work ethic to really go at it and make things work.  In life you have got to make things happen, things aren’t just going to land at your feet.  You’ve got to go for it and work hard for it.  Have resilience.  It’s being able to accept rejection at times.  Accept there are going to be bumps on the road and you will have to figure a way around them and overcome those challenges.  If you have those three, you are going to have success and achieve excellence.

Lee:  So passion, resilience and work ethic.  Okay, thank you very much for coming in and I wish you all the best for the future, and there is a potential at Unity Radio that we may come down to some of the schools and work together at some point in the future.  Thanks very much guys.


Article Transcription by Terry Capostagno


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Lee Dinsdale

  • Lee Dinsdale

    Lee has over 15 years of experience in professional services as an investment manager and private banker and, since 2014, as a social value entrepreneur. Lee is now an Accredited Coach, Master Practitioner in NLP and trained Hypnotherapist, and was recently awarded a distinction for his MBA.