Sophie Maxwell was just 22 when she founded the Really Neet Project.
It aims to make education accessible to vulnerable young people who struggle with mainstream education due to social or mental health issues alongside external barriers, such as homelessness, leaving care, or being a young parent.
“Our main principle is youth work before education,” Sophie explained. “If you get the youth work right, the education will follow. We can’t expect a young person who hasn’t got a roof over their head to come and sit in a maths lesson, we need to solve those external barriers and make sure they’ve got safety and stability.”
Sophie went through years of domestic violence in her own family home growing up. It led to disruptive schooling. At 14, she dropped out.
“I eventually ended up homeless at 16 and on my own.” Two years of homelessness followed.
“I always turned up to my local athletics track, so I was actively engaged in something positive all the way through that difficult time, and eventually trained myself as an athletic coach,”
she said. Sophie knew she was at risk of falling down a dark path.
“I was sharing rooms with people hooked on heroin or crack. The death of a friend to a drugs overdose was a catalyst.
“At that point I reconnected with education. I didn’t want to follow suit.”
At Sheffield College, her life transformed.
We do loads of enrichment. I’m a big believer in fun
“I met an incredible tutor called Paul who taught me on the sport and leisure course. He was terminally ill with cancer, and spent the last two years of his life helping me to believe in myself and my education.”
Sophie moved out of the homeless hostels and got herself through university.
“Paul was a big inspiration. I’m sure he saved more than one life in his time on this planet.”
Straight out of university, Sophie set up the Really Neet Project.
Over a decade later, it has expanded to four sites in Rotherham, Barnsley, Telford and East London. Key Fund invested a £127,200 loan and £22,800 grant in March 2020 to help the expansion.
In the last two years, the enterprise has gone from a £500,000 turnover to £2.2 million; staff has risen from 15 to 40.
“Key Fund has been brilliant,” Sophie said. “That was a key time because it was right at the beginning of Covid.
Everything slowed down and the councils who fund our courses were paying really late. Key Fund was instrumental in keeping cash flow in the business.
Because we were able to keep going with that reserve in the bank we’ve been able to triple in size in the last two years.”
Sophie has given TEDx Talks and spoken at One Young World, a global conference for young leaders, and shared a stage with Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof; she was selected to represent the UK with Megan Markle and Prince Harry on a gender equality global group.
Around 90 young people have gone through the four sites in the last year, with 130 expected next year.
“We have a music studio, we do art and woodwork, and run sport and occupational studies. We take our students to the Exotic Zoo in the Midlands, where they do Zookeeping, so it’s very hands-on and engaging. With English and Maths, we strip out the curriculum to make it thought provoking, interesting and relevant.”
They also offer to pick-up and drop-off students to remove any external barriers to accessing the courses.
“We do loads of enrichment. I’m a big believer of fun. Fun improves mental health and social communication, so we take them quad biking and rock climbing – anything that lifts their mood and makes them feel good about themselves. It all builds into a whole-person approach.”
During Covid, as a special educational needs provider, they continued provision. They adapted to working outdoors with masked lessons to small bubbles on site. When fully closed, they sent educational packs, hosted virtual lessons and bought laptops for all their students, alongside arranging food parcels for their families. As an independent school, they didn’t qualify for government schemes, so funded the laptops from their own money.
Despite it being incredibly stressful, they still expanded. “It made us stronger,” Sophie said.
“Key Fund have been involved from the early days. Every time they’ve been involved, the funding or the guidance that they’ve provided has played a pivotal role in terms of the growth and the impact of our project.”
Now, they have exciting and big plans for the future.
The ambition is to move away from renting their sites from corporate landlords to owning community assets and land, building Really Neet Super Centres.
“We’re two years away from being able to develop our first Super Centre. We’re in regular contact with Barnsley council, as it’s set to be on the border between Barnsley and Rotherham, and meeting with architect students at Sheffield Hallam University to design the centres, and how to make them eco‑friendly, so that’s really exciting.”
Not only that, the team aims to overhaul the national educational system, working with the awarding body, NCFE.
“It’s been a long journey of trying to change the exam system,” Sophie said. “It isn’t fit for purpose, there’s inequality – it’s traditional, paper based assessment. We’re working to create immersive, technology-based assessment for young people. It will level the playing field, and that’s really exciting.”
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