We have been working very hard, particularly over the last 12 months, with one goal in mind … to make a difference and help provide support for children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs, and their families.
Although we have had our heads down, helping at a local level, it became more and more apparent that this was a national rather than local problem. Social media, particularly Twitter, helped us to understand the true extent and the fact that there are many individuals, parent groups, professionals, services and networks already in existence working together to try to fix SEND. The magnitude of the problem resonated. How can thousands of children, young people and their parents be going through this? How can there be a national crisis, which is acknowledged, but no clear plan to work towards a resolve? We felt duty bound to help and to share the local model we had developed and the positive changes we had made; to network with others to share knowledge, resources and our model of intervention and support.
Our aim is to share the work we have been doing and our ideas with the hope that this could be replicated in other areas to support more families, schools and local authorities.
So, who are we?
I am Emma, a 36-year-old mother of three young children from Manchester. I previously worked in property, management and contract writing for the most part (15 years). However, once I had children (my oldest is now ten) I decided to take the plunge and start my own business, something I had always wanted to achieve. It naturally seemed the right time when I had my first child, so that I could be more flexible, work around family life and do something meaningful for children and families in the local area. My businesses over the last decade have been centred around children, and I found myself involved in various projects helping families, creating workshops for families who had children with SEND, alongside various school projects as my eldest two were growing up.
As with any business owner, there were many peaks and troughs, but all helped with the learning of running businesses, managing people and problem solving (lots of that!). It became clear to me very quickly, that this was never going to be about becoming the next Karen Brady. Many people joked over the years “you’ll never be rich if you keep giving stuff away for free” – but making people smile was always more important to me than money could ever be.
This is part of the reason Meg and I work so well together. We are cousins, we have the same Irish roots from a very large family. We have similar morals and values, we are both naturally intuitive and are able to form positive relationships quickly with people, so often have the same perspective on things. Our own life experiences, as well as professional skills and abilities, our straight talking and transparent approach was and is welcomed by those working within systems that are anything but.
Meg and I have demonstrated that together, alongside our amazing team, with a creative approach to working with both the public and private sectors as well as parents and parent groups, have had significantly positive results. For the children and families, we support but also in our ability to be able to present our ideas to parliament and at a national level. We question at times how we got here, but know for certain that we cannot sit back and let our future generation of children be failed by systems designed to protect them.
I am Meg, a 36-year-old mother of two from Manchester. I am the oldest of 6 children and have had caring responsibilities from a young age. By the time I was 18 I was volunteering with various clubs and activities for children and young people. While completing an undergraduate degree I began to work with children in schools as well as an amanuensis and scribe for young adults with learning and physical disabilities, to support them to access higher education.
I completed a Masters in Social Work Studies at the end of 2009 and for the last decade have worked for three local authorities as a front-line social worker, social work manager and Independent Reviewing Officer reviewing care plans for Looked After Children. Having worked supporting some of the most vulnerable children in our society, many who have SEND and SEMH needs and were/ are struggling to engage in education I was able to use my own life experiences, professional skills and sense of self to empower parents, while at the same time balancing the rights and safety of children.
Throughout the last ten years, neither of us have ever spoken of working together. As I left social work to become a foster carer to sibling groups and Emma was telling me about the exciting work she was doing, it really did happen naturally.
Although we have been cousins and friends all our lives, attending the same primary and secondary schools, it was only as the organisation grew that it became clear how alike we were. The more families we met, the more schools we would go to, the more local authority meetings we attended, it reached a point where we just had to communicate with our eyes! “Yes, this parent needs that support”, “This child needs a dyslexia screening”, “This school needs help” – all without having to speak a word. Whilst we are able to see strengths and positives in everybody we meet, we can also apply necessary scepticism where needed and professional curiosity. It just works. We both feel as though everything we have ever been through in our life, the negatives and positives, has led us to this point. We were meant to be a part of this, we were born to help people, it’s in our make-up, it’s everything we are.
We are so lucky to have such an amazing team, who work above and beyond the call of duty every day for our families. Our team is made up of a paid multidisciplinary team, a professional volunteer initiative and graduate schemes across the country to match those with the relevant knowledge requiring experience with those that need hands on support in schools, social services and care. Our volunteer initiative now has just under 200 professionals working with families across England, and we could not be more proud of what they are achieving every day.
How we became Great Minds Together
So, how do we get our life skills curriculum, school intervention for children with SEND and SEMH needs, and Families in crisis support (FICS) division all into one name?! We also recognised at this point, what we were doing was for social change and not for profit. It was because we wanted to help as many people as we could, not be successful business owners, but successful in making a difference. We had built a large team of amazing people, volunteers, university students and have a huge network of other agencies that we link with our families and schools.
Then we had our lightbulb moment… the amount of times we had spoken the words “Great minds think alike” over the past decade is immeasurable! One of our main values as an organisation is “working together” with as many other people, services, schools and organisations as possible to ensure the best support for families and schools … Great Minds Together it became, and we love it!
What is our vision?
Every day we were working parents who were penalised and marginalised and suffering increasingly poor mental health battling a system failing their children. Further isolated by a service that should be there to support them. The threat of safeguarding concerns when a child isn’t attending school are high, yet there must be reams and reams of records where these parents have been asking for help from systems and services that are often quick to turn things against them. The abuse of power is real and prevalent and must stop.
At one point, after seeing it in practice every day, battling the system with our families, experiencing every slammed door they experienced with them, we were so completely deflated and felt the help we were providing was a teardrop in an ocean. At this point the Education Select Committees’ SEND enquiry report was released. This was definitely one of the most significant days in Great Minds Together’s history. There it was. We needed to develop a national independent Resolution Service.
We set to work, harder than we have ever worked in our lives! Juggling 7 children between the two of us, some with their own challenges, every hour they were asleep we would plan, sometimes having only a few hours sleep before the school run.
We continue to evidence our work, write our case studies, build links with more schools, local authorities, organisations, volunteer initiatives and universities, building a real community of people pulling together to do what we can to help. We continue to adapt the framework to best meet need. It has been all sorts of shapes and sizes as we navigated this complex system.
We realised quite quickly the breadth of points of view, from parents, SENCO’s, teachers, headteachers, social workers, directors, councillors and MPs, but they all had one thing in common – even when in complete disagreement in some areas, they agree, this system is not working for our kids. In-fact it is failing them to a catastrophic level. As heart-breaking is it to see what the families are going through, it is just as upsetting to see professionals in actual tears as they are faced with the exact same contention from within the service they work for, after studying for years to help and make a difference for children.
We talk continuously about how we can better the framework, the service, the SEND Resolution, to parents, professionals and each other. We talk about how services could work better together, what are the most important elements to us, based on families we work with, based on our own experiences.
Then we emailed every MP on the Education Select Committee with our idea. The framework that we had spent months working on, it was an idea. A plan, something! We had an invite to Westminster within 3 days. Then another invite followed, then another – we couldn’t quite believe it.
The meetings were informative, welcomed and helpful and we were asked to produce a policy paper, which would be backed by cross party MPs.
More recently we have contacted many people across social media, parent led groups, schools, local authorities, experts, psychologists……we need as many people involved in the delivery of this model as possible. Since COVID-19 we have seen the largest increase in referrals from families at crisis point, ever.
We would like to provide more trials of our model across other local authorities in order to gather further evidence of its positive outcomes for families. All support for families under our model is and always will be completely free.
Our model allocates one or more mentors and/or a Family Wraparound Co-ordinator to support the family, linking everything together where there are multiple services involved (or lack of due to COVID-19), whilst also providing practical and emotional support to the child/ren and family, in order to ensure better outcomes.
The majority of our funding currently comes from commissioned work, grant funding and people's free time. If you are interested in social change, to make a difference to the children in our country, please donate so that more families can be supported across the country, especially at the most challenging time we have ever seen.
Emma & Meg