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Saturday, 01 November 2014

An educational journey

WE tend to think of a language barrier as something that exists between the residents of different nations. But fundamentally different ways of communicating can cause a problem much closer to home - with professionals often finding it hard to reach out to the young people they hope to help. One man set out on a personal mission to bridge the gap, writes CAROLINE BARBER

FRUSTRATED with the one-size-fits-all approach to learning in schools, former South Lakeland teacher Paul Johnson felt compelled to find a way to help those that fall through the cracks of our national educational system.

Every individual has a capacity to learn, he reasoned, but not all in the traditional manner.

So passionately did the Kendal father-of-three feel about the topic, that he vowed to leave his career behind in search of new ways to help agencies reach out to the children, young people and families they were trying to help.

A year of hard work and development later, Mr Johnson launched Socialworx – a personally-funded social enterprise designed to find new ways to break down the barriers to learning for those that need it the most.

“It became so clear that every child in my class had the potential to learn, but not all of them were designed to do so within the confines of a classroom and a curriculum,” he said, speaking from Socialworx new base on Natland Road, in Kendal.

“But it just wasn’t possible to spend time with each child separately every day to find the best way for them to learn as individuals.

“I realised I couldn’t just watch them struggle on through school without the support they needed any longer.”

Pulling together the talents of communication experts and creative thinkers from across the area – including cartoonist Colin Shelbourn and videographer Ben Barden – Socialworx is already publishing a series of two-minute films, animations and children’s books to help young people understand a range of issues in a way that is accessible to them.

And as a social enterprise, any money made by the organisation will be ploughed back into new projects to benefit more children, young people and families.

“We can sit down with a client, storyboard what they want to get across, script it and record the voice-over in a day,” Mr Johnson explained.

“It has to be bite-sized if it’s going to work as a bridge between the young people themselves and the agencies that are trying to help them.

“So short, actually, that they wouldn’t think twice about watching it again if they didn’t understand the first time.

“And getting the language right is key - language is often the biggest barrier to learning but one that can so easily be remedied.”

Socialworx is already benefitting from the help and advice of its new in house digital artist, Chris Duncan.

The 20-year-old, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is working on a year-long apprenticeship at Socialworx through Lancaster and Morecambe College which Mr Johnson helped set up.

“Chris had been unemployed and was volunteering at the Age UK depot in Kendal.

“But he’s got a real talent – he’s a brilliant artist. Unfortunately, communication had held him back until now.”

Mr Johnson sold his house and used his lifesavings to set up Socialworx – an organisation so far unique to the UK.

But its potential to unpick the invisible lock between vulnerable families and disillusioned children and the charities and agencies who can offer them vital support has already been spotted by The Brathay Trust.

The Ambleside-based youth concern is now piloting the use of Socialworx’s animations in a new trial to provide solid evidence of its benefits over traditional ‘chalk and talk’ techniques.

Dr Karen Stuart, Brathay’s head of research and evaluation, explained young people and professionals often use different language and communication styles.

“Whereas we have a vast amount of experience working with marginalised and disadvantaged young people, Socialworx brings expertise in fast paced video learning, opening a new door for us in reaching out.

“We believe this trial will provide a turning point for Brathay in terms of increasing the numbers of young people we have an impact on.”

For Mr Johnson, the link up reinforces the reason he sacrificed his teaching career and home to set up a community-minded venture.

“I wanted to make a difference,” he said.

“The fact our product is being monitored by The Brathay Trust in a controlled group environment will provide us with unequivocal research evidence of the effectiveness of our approach.

“If it is proved to be more effective, which we believe it will, then the exciting fact is that more troubled young people will be reached and supported.”

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