One of the borough’s newest education providers is encouraging vulnerable pupils to give learning another chance and aim high in the classroom.
Aim Together Northwest opened last year in Ashton helping secondary school age pupils who are unable to continue in mainstream education.
Many of those attending the intensive school days at the Redgate Road facility are battling serious mental illnesses while others have been excluded or expelled from numerous establishments.
However, the team led by head of centre Sue Astley helps them with English, maths and science as well as wide-ranging PSHE lessons to kick off each day.
The second academic year is already building on the successes of the inaugural pupils, which saw some teenagers who had almost completely dismissed the education system and their own ability to learn bounce back by passing GCSE exams and going on to college or training.
Sue said: “Our main focus is on supporting young people with mental health issues who can’t function in mainstream schools.
“One of our proudest achievements last year was helping a boy and a girl who had been home educated. He was in year nine and she was in year 11.
“They both had agoraphobia and had changed schools three times. The boy wasn’t good at speaking or looking anybody in the eye and the girl would cry at the drop of a hat, wanting to come out of the lesson because she couldn’t cope with her anxiety and panic attacks.
“She sat exams with us and got two Cs. She came with nothing after missing about 18 months of education and is now at college.
“She returned to see us recently and she was crying as she told us she couldn’t have done it without us.
“The boy is now at the UTC and the relationships he struck up here with his peers were a huge step for him and for us.
“Our aim is to progress the pupils positively back into education if we can or make them feel more comfortable and build character and reliance so they can go on to college or apprenticeships.”
Aim Together Northwest can accommodate up to 50 pupils at any one time, with around a dozen currently starting out the academic year learning there.
Referrals last year saw pupil numbers grow to around 35 and Sue expects the service to be heavily in demand once more as there are few other opportunities for young people in Wigan facing such barriers to success in the classroom.
The whole project is something of a labour of love for Sue, who originally worked for Wigan Council as an education welfare officer before founding her own consultancy around five years ago.
She said: “Young people with mental illnesses often stop attending school even though they are quite capable of getting qualifications.
“There is a huge gap in the Wigan area because not many people are working in the way we’re trying to do.
“I’ve wanted to do this for about 10 years and being here working as a community interest company is amazing.
“We’re all here for the same reason, to help young people through at a stage in their lives with nothing else available to them. We’re re-engaging them with education, get them some qualifications and make them more confident.
“It has been difficult but the whole experience has been worthwhile.”
Pupils spend a minimum of 14 weeks at the centre, although most of those who joined last year ended up staying until the end of the academic year in summer.
A day at Aim Together Northwest is intense, with few breaks and near-continuous learning from 9am until lunchtime.
Pupils begin with a 30-minute class covering topics such as sex education, drug and alcohol awareness, cyberbullying and keeping safe online and also covers topics like geography, history, religious education and British values.
There is then a maths lesson, followed by a break during which hot and cold drinks and toast are provided, following by more classes in English and science.
Sue uses her background in psychology to do one-to-one sessions with the pupils on anger management, counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
She said: “A lot of the older pupils in particular have given up before they get to us. Last year we got a lot of year 11s half way through the year and towards the end and we re-engaged them in a very short space of time and managed to get them to sit qualifications.
“A lot of our pupils are also coming from disaffected backgrounds and some of that involves drugs and alcohol. Others are from very poor socio-econmic positions with no money.
“We encourage them to develop their social and emotional skills as well, because a lot of the time they are starting from scratch.
“Mainstream education isn’t always right for everyone and it doesn’t have the resources for the nurturing one-to-one support we can provide.
“Sometimes pupils don’t understand things and get frustrated in a big class setting and then they fall by the wayside.
“Some of them have been expelled from schools or are thought of as naughty, but we don’t see that here.”
Sue is now hoping Aim Together Northwest can provide a model for other places to follow, saying the problems the centre tackles are national and by no means confined to Wigan.
That means teenagers elsewhere who have written themselves off or been cast aside may soon have the chance to join their Wigan peers and aim high together as well.
The project is also set to benefit from a substantial grant from the National Lottery Awards.
The organisation was awarded over £9,000 to “improve educational outcomes for young people in the North West.
For more information visit www.attendanceaim.co.uk