It is two years ago that I initiated a legal action against my local authority. Dylan was 19 and had just left full time education. Our Local Authority hadn’t offered Dylan any adult provision and I had been advised by a solicitor to challenge this; under section 139a of the 2000 Learning and Skills Act (now superseded by the 2014 Children and Families Act) Dylan had an entitlement to continuing education.
When the case made by Dylan’s solicitor was accepted by the Local Authority, their response was to identify a property which could be converted into a small unit for ‘high need’ school leavers. The property was an ex-school caretaker’s house in a rural situation on the outskirts of the city, close to where Dylan and I live. As it was next to a city farm where Dylan was already spending one day a week, the proposal seemed to have potential. Although it would be scary to commit to such an initiative, being involved from the start could bring benefits.
One of the advantages, I told myself at the time, was the opportunity to influence practice. I was particularly interested in the potential that the initiative offered for developing an autism-friendly environment and curriculum. A small steering group (Local Authority, headteachers and parents) was established and held an initial meeting at the property just before Christmas 2013. I went along to the meeting with ideas, trepidation and hope.
In starting such provision from scratch, I argued, we should have vision and courage: it was an opportunity to create something different, designed around the needs of the young people who would be based at the house. One of the things I remember pitching for was a holistic and project-based approach which emphasised the concept of community and sustainability; as examples I cited keeping chickens and a hypothetical woodwork project. I had discovered that the yew tree behind the house was reputed to be the oldest in the city: ‘Why not name this ‘Yew Tree House’, I suggested, ‘and involve the young people in designing and making a plaque bearing the house name?’ My idea was to offer a variety of points of involvement in the project from visiting a saw mill through to celebrating the erection of the plaque at a house naming ceremony.
I remember that another member of the group teased my idealism. I remember some robust, and at times challenging, differences of opinion. I remember realising there were a variety of political agendas in the room; the house had been offered to other interested parties as a solution to their different (but equally urgent) needs. I remember going home at the end of the meeting feeling vaguely depressed. I wasn’t sure the house was the solution I had dreamed. Perhaps something would come of it – maybe Dylan would be happy there – but there probably wouldn’t be any woodwork projects.
Little could I have guessed, that Christmas, that Dylan wouldn’t spend even a day at the house with the yew tree. Before the refurbishment of the property was underway, he had developed ‘challenging behaviours’ and anxiety which triggered fundamental changes to the assessment of his needs; the Local Authority house, it was agreed, was no longer an appropriate placement for Dylan.
At the residential home where Dylan now lives there is a range of social enterprise activity. This, I told myself when Dylan was allocated a place at the home, might provide some of the opportunities I had originally wanted for Dylan. A Horticultural Coordinator manages the residents’ engagement with a range of activities linked to a small shop. These include making jam and candles; stamping wrapping paper; planting and potting up; working in the polytunnel; collecting fruit from the orchards; and looking after the chickens.
Soon after Dylan’s arrival at the home in July, the Horticultural Coordinator realised that Dylan has a special interest in saws; he noticed him one day, staring over the fence at the collection in a neighbour’s shed. Recently, having built a positive relationship with Dylan through a variety of social enterprise activities, the Coordinator asked the home manager whether he might work with Dylan on a larger project. The residents have made so many firebricks (out of recycled paper) that they need somewhere appropriate to store them; given Dylan’s interest in saws and woodwork, perhaps he could help make a wooden storage box for them? I was delighted when the manager mentioned the project to me at Dylan’s review the other week: ‘Of course’, I said: ‘marvellous’.
I’m not sure I believed the project would happen but the first stage was scheduled for today. I was therefore especially looking forward to visiting Dylan this evening, curious to hear about his outing to a saw mill. According to Dylan’s diary entry the trip went well: Dylan didn’t like the noise when the wood was being cut but he enjoyed the experience otherwise and helped unload the wood from the car on arrival back at the care home 🙂 The Coordinator is excited about the next stage of the project, apparently. Tonight, thinking about Dylan’s visit to the saw mill, I realised that he is finally in the place I dreamed of. It has been a circuitous route.
The Local Authority provision I refer to in this post is up and running and, I believe, a flourishing place for other young people in the city. I am delighted that the Local Authority adopted the name Yew Tree House.