Who are they?
Leading Lights HQ
5th Floor, RBS Building
We have met with Leading Lights staff. In addition, 20 clients and 20 tutors have completed an on-line survey.
Leading Lights Education & Wellbeing staff
Founded in 2014 when a group of experienced tutors, teachers, counsellors and children’s specialists became fed up with the shortfall in services available for young people who needed educational and emotional support to achieve their aspirations. With Sarah Louise Hopkins (degree in English Lit from Bristol; also a specialist in SEN and mental health) at the helm and the rest as practitioners and/or advisory board members, they are now a holistic not-for-profit provider of academic tuition and specialist needs provision for SEN, mental health and other additional needs.
Headquarters is in Bristol (although they also operate in London and occasionally overseas), where they share large, snazzy Google-like office (rent-free) with other not-for-profits. We met the three-strong core team – Sarah Louise, plus services co-ordinators Ali Karavias and Rasheda Meinema – all of whom ooze professionalism and compassion but speak with a refreshing lack of jargon, despite a wealth of experience from working at the likes of CAMHS and Action for Children. There’s also education and wellbeing mentor Lily Hartman-Gerald and a behind the scenes advisory board harnessing expertise of, amongst others a GP and mental health nurse, plus experts in pedagogy, outreach and mentoring – and an economist.
To say that parents are pleased with the efficiency, know-how, kindness and all-round care of the staff doesn’t begin to do justice to the reams of stories they shared about how their families’ lives had been turned around. ‘This is such a personal service, I feel they are taking care of me as well as my daughter. It has been a little bit of magic for us,’ is a typical comment. Tutors equally impressed – ‘the small core team are genuinely dedicated to what they do and it shines through every aspect of their work.’ It can be hard to reach them during busy periods, say some, ‘but they’re always good at getting back to you.’
What do Leading Lights Education & Wellbeing offer?
For those seeking to throw large amounts of cash at getting their little darlings through their 11+ or 13+, forget it. This is not a commercially-led firm that tutors kids to death to get them into the school mummy and daddy have set their sights on.
Yes, it offers academic tuition as a core service (across all core subjects at primary and secondary level, plus most GCSE and A level subjects and some undergraduate and postgraduate ones), but that’s just the start. The team’s real strength lies in SEN/additional needs. At one end of the spectrum, they might support someone who has, say, fallen behind in maths and has confidence issues or is desperate to get an A in their A levels but demoralised after getting poor mocks results. At the other end, they work with youngsters who have completely disengaged with the education system. From OCD to school phobia, eating disorders to depression and self-harm, they cover the lot. Academically rigorous, without a hint of wishywashyness, their raison d’etre is to maximise potential, regardless of obstacles. For many, this equates to weekly hour-long tuition sessions at home; for others it means A level English support in the Keats Museum or anxiety tuition while walking in parks (both real cases). Then there are those who may require additional counselling, mentoring and advocacy and/or home schooling. Careers advice, consultancy and support with UCAS applications and personal statements are also thrown in for those who require it, at no extra cost.
Youngsters are as likely to attend prestigious schools such as Millfield, Rugby and Stowe as they are to go to the local comp, with a third of families on funded social impact programmes or the free ‘Illuminate’ programme ‘aimed at 16-19 year-olds who know what they want to achieve, but who have additional social, emotional or mental health needs and who can’t afford to access support,’ says Hopkins. And it’s not just about one-to-one support at Leading Lights, with an education and wellbeing hub (complete with café) opening in 2018 for young people and their families – in fact, the emphasis on the whole family runs across all services. ‘They’ve not only helped our son with his school work and confidence but helped our parental anxieties’; ‘I didn’t think I could go on with the stress of everything my son has suffered, but they’ve sorted me out as well as him’ etc.
External referrals (eg local authority, CAHMs) also common and Leading Lights increasingly works directly with schools to provide tutoring, mentoring, advocacy and therapy (either paid-for or on one of their free programmes).
Leading Lights Education & Wellbeing - background and basics
Of the 90-strong team of tutors and mentors, around 35 specialise in additional needs, and what they don’t know about imaginative quality-assured educational and wellbeing provision would probably fit on a postage stamp, if that. ‘These tutors, and the Leading Lights team they’re supported by, have a phenomenal amount of experience,’ one parent summed up. For SEN placements, we’re talking SENCOs, teachers with a specialist interest in SEN, SLTs or just people with a heck of a lot of experience in it – for example, a GP with a long history of teaching SEN science and a neurologist who’s had particular success with GCSE science placements where there have been cognitive processing and working memory issues. ‘With GCSE and A level placements in particular, young people often want SEN awareness, but for the focus to be on the academic content,’ explains Hopkins. ‘Likewise, some people with dyslexia can find the very fixed methods used by some specialist dyslexia practitioners are too rigid for their needs.’ Parents concur: ‘They [Leading Lights] want to understand who the child is, what their influences are, where they are strong – this isn’t all about disability, it’s about finding a way that suits your child to learn,’ said one.
As for mental health and other needs (in addition to or instead of SEN), tutors come from backgrounds including CAMHS, counselling, therapy and youth work with mental health, ‘while others have experienced mental health issues or additional needs experience and have developed a specific passion for incorporating mentoring and role-modelling into their educational practice,’ says Hopkins. ‘As with SEN, for some of the higher level academic placements, the students specifically request that they don’t want a mental health specialist but an academic specialist with a working knowledge and framework of how their needs impact on their learning.’
Bottom line is that every placement is different and so here, more than in most agencies, everything rests on the match, with all initial queries assigned a case manager who chats in depth to the team to find the most suitable practitioner. If there isn’t one, they say so and if there is one who happens to be available and the family likes the sound of them, they set up a first session, see how it goes (from both sides) and then agree an ongoing schedule. ‘These tutors have incredible experience, patience and flexibility,’ one parent told us – ‘My son has OCD and often isn’t ready to start the lesson when the tutor arrives, but they are understanding and always give him all the time he needs.’
Add to this the organisation’s not-for-profit ethos and you’ll start to get a picture of how this attracts a very particular kind of tutor. ‘I’m put off by the commercial approach of most agencies,’ one told us. ‘By chance, I stumbled across Leading Lights and having done so, I thought these are values that really resonate.’ So while Leading Lights uses all the usual word-of-mouth recommendations and advertising, the thorough, transparent and regularly revised three-stage recruitment process quickly weeds out those without the right ethos. Stage one is a chat over the phone; stage two an assessment day which includes tutor hopefuls showcasing their expertise, skills, experience and values; and stage three is an interview. A minimum of two references are followed up, plus all the usual checks including DBS. ‘We generally ask for a great degree from a great university with at least two years of relevant experience and specific experience and an established track record relating to the additional needs they want to teach, but we look at every applicant as an individual. So we have one tutor, for example, who is an incredible SEN tutor much praised by the families and schools she works with, who doesn’t actually have a degree,’ says Hopkins.
Once on board, tutors get access to ongoing training – everything from safeguarding to session planning for SEN profiles, although some tutors told us they’d like ‘even more.’ And ongoing close contact between the core team, the family and the tutor helps ensure the placement stays on track to achieve its aims. ‘Even after the first lesson, my son just seemed more at ease with himself, as if he had achieved something,’ said one parent. ‘My daughter’s anxiety around maths had developed to such an extent that it was impossible for her to engage with the subject at all – the turnaround and increase in her confidence happened so quickly it was stunning,’ another told us.
Leading Lights Education & Wellbeing - money and small print
‘In a world of funding cuts, when schools, social services and the NHS are under increasing pressure, we wanted to see if we could be self-sufficient so that those suffering in silence did not fall through the cracks,’ says Hopkins. Hence their simple and sustainable funding model that aims for accessibility for all. So there are no registration or introduction charges and all money made from full-cost placements (which start at £35 an hour, of which tutor gets £25-£28, going up to £65 an hour, of which tutor gets £50) is ploughed back into the organisation to make means-tested discounts available, as well as the free-for-all Illuminate programme. There’s no VAT (exempt as not-for-profit) and travel expenses are included. Tutors and clients sign standard T&Cs. Tutors told us they’ve ‘never seen such efficiency when it comes to paying us’ and no family we spoke to felt costs were unreasonable.
Leading Lights Education & Wellbeing say
‘Something that seemed very obvious to us, as a team of experienced educators and children’s and young people’s professionals, was that there is a way to teach that inspires and instils confidence and passion. We wanted to be able to bring this to children, young people and their families, including for those who have special educational needs, issues with confidence, anxiety or mental healthy difficulties, as well as for those young people who simply need academic teaching that really values them as an individual and encourages them to thrive intellectually as well as emotionally.’
One word cropped up more than any other in our conversations with tutors and parents - ‘caring.’ ‘Leading Lights is one of the most caring education-based companies that I know - they make sure every child achieves their learning goal,’ reported one student. ‘Leading Lights is probably the best tutoring company in the UK – they are efficient and very understanding of students’ needs, not only academically but mentally too,’ said another.
Tutors told us they had a ‘greater degree of interest in young people and in us tutors’ than other agencies they worked for and their emotional buy-in shone through again and again. A few had suggestions around improving admin, but otherwise we heard about the organisation’s ‘integrity,’ ‘hard work’ and ‘relentless commitment to excellent outcomes for students.’ ‘I’ve never known a tutoring agency quite like this.’
Leading Lights is in a league of its own and, better still, we found evidence that they never miss a trick when it comes to measuring their social impact and continually striving to do better. If ever there’s a tutoring organisation that makes your heart sing, this is it.