Learning Space is 25 years old
This is how it all started...
Learning Space sprung into life in April 1997 as a small community project in Dorking. At that time there was a rising tide of concern from several quarters around the impact that a number of vulnerable young people, all of whom had been excluded from school, were having on the town. These disenfranchised youngsters were, rightly or wrongly, blamed for an increase in incidents of anti-social behaviour as well as for stretching the resources of the local police and adolescent mental health services. Something had to be done.
Enter Bruce Pearce. Bruce was something of a “before his time” social visionary, who was then working for Surrey Children’s Services. He began to search for alternative ways to address the needs of this group. Supported by Dorking’s two secondary schools, the local police and church representatives, Bruce set up an innovative charity called The Surrey Youth Initiative to apply for funding for local projects.
Learning Space was created as one of those funded projects with an initial remit to provide education and support to those unable, for whatever reason, to thrive in mainstream schooling. So, back in April 1997, Learning Space was formed with an initial team of four. All staff members had professional backgrounds in either education or social care and the team was originally based in a Surrey County Council youth centre in the middle of town where Waitrose now stands. For those with long memories, Learning Space was based at the old Mulberry Centre.
As described, the work initially centred on Dorking’s two participating secondary schools – The Ashcombe and The Priory. With a multi-disciplined approach straddling education and pastoral care, which was quite ground-breaking at that time, the team began collaborating with school colleagues to support inclusive practice and to look for more appropriate ways of meeting the needs of those young people struggling with the demands of school and finding themselves at risk of exclusion.
The blend of skills within a single organization that had a unified management structure provided Learning Space with a unique ‘one-stop’ selling point that appealed to the local schools. In addition, from almost the outset, it was realised that that the active involvement of parents and families enabled better outcomes for children and young people. This family-centred approach together with our one-stop inclusivity very quickly became the consistent hallmarks of Learning Space’s service delivery. With the framework of our service in place, the quality of our work progressively improved as the team became skilled in using a solution focused methodology which is future-focused and highlights the importance of searching for solutions rather than focusing on problems.
The period 1997 – 2008 were the years of a Labour Government, led by Tony Blair, which came into office on the mantra of – Education, Education, Education. During this time school budgets could accommodate the funding of direct support from Learning Space. Over these first few years the needs of the young people we supported expanded to include not just those youngsters with overt behaviour difficulties but other emotional wellbeing factors which cause young people to struggle in school. Learning Space began to work with children affected by feelings of worry and anxiety, feelings of bereavement and loss, as well as feelings of low mood and sadness. Also, as a new departure, children who were neurodiverse were brought into our target group.
The Learning Space service grew steadily during its first decade by expanding its reach to other schools outside Dorking, across south-east Surrey. To meet a growing need, we also lowered our age limit for working with children to include those in primary education. Throughout this time, during these formative years, Bruce was on hand to offer his support and encouragement. Bruce became a trustee of the charity. Sadly, in 2010 Bruce, when he was far too young, died suddenly of a heart attack. It is a tribute to him that by his untimely death he had secured the future of Learning Space.
The following decade saw a shift in the Learning Space financial model as the source of direct funding provided by schools began to diminish. School funding was largely replaced by longer term contracts with the NHS CAMHS service. While still working with schools, Learning Space had entered an era of partnering with the NHS. To bring our history fully up to date, 2022 has been a real landmark year for Learning Space. We celebrated our 25th anniversary, a significant milestone, as well as moved into a wonderful new HQ in Mill Street, Redhill. With pleasing symmetry, the latest part of our story completes the circle of our founding as we discovered that our current HQ was the former offices of another charity created by our founder Bruce Pearce.
Looking back over our first quarter century, the charity has gone from strength to strength, and it is interesting to try and pinpoint the precise reasons behind its success. No doubt the solution-focused strength-based methodology has facilitated positive relationships with children and young people of all ages as well as parents. Our way of service delivery has also supported our staff to cope with the emotional demands of their work and to maintain a strong sense of hope and possibilities for change. The way in which we interface with schools and offer flexible support packages with open referral routes removes barriers and allows genuine co-production to happen. We also want children and young people to engage willingly, feel positive about the sessions and celebrate the progress they make – so having as much fun as possible is another essential part of the Learning Space approach.