Super surprise Queen's birthday MBE honour for North Swindon special school head

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Jackie Smith, executive principal of Uplands Special School, was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List released late on 10 June.

The announcement came as the Queen prepared to attend the Trooping of the Colour to mark her official 90th birthday, two days before Jackie’s forty-ninth.

The honour is for Services to Education, recognising a teaching career of passionate commitment to young people with special educational needs, particularly in the last seven years since Jackie took up the headship at Uplands which has become a national leader in its field.

After several weeks keeping the secret Jackie said: “There are things in your life you think might happen but to be awarded an honour like this was a surprise. For a start I didn’t realise they ask you if you’d accept, so opening the official letter was a shock. Obviously it would be rude to say no.”

She first came to the UK from Australia in her late teens and trained as a horse riding therapist before going on to become a secondary maths teacher in the late 1990s. Jackie quickly transferred to special needs education and took up her first headship at Uplands in 2009, after Mary Bishop, whilst preparing for retirement, had been involved in the building plans for the brand new school on the North Swindon Learning Camps and had overseen the move from the old site in Penhill.

jackie smith mbe, uplands special schoolJackie has a very understanding partner and two children, a 29 year old daughter who is profoundly deaf and a scientist who is expecting her first child in July, and an 11 year old daughter about to start secondary school.

She continued: “Once it had sunk in that the award was for services to education, I realised that it was both recognition of my career dedicated to special educational needs and important recognition of education and development of young people with disabilities.

“My work at Uplands is not necessarily what I’ve done because that’s not how education works; it’s about what everybody involved is prepared to do. I came in very fresh faced and joined a staff absolutely ready for change. We examined everything and refocussed how we provide education and support to the young people and their families.

“We changed the curriculum which was akin to mainstream secondary school to a needs led model so that young people are grouped according to their particular needs to maximise their potential. We stabilised the staff so that students don’t move around the school, they have one teacher for 2 or 3 years so that they get to know the staff. We changed class sizes and introduced topic based learning and person centred planning.

“It’s been a really exciting journey and my job has been to provide the guidance and leadership; the staff around me are so dedicated to delivering the best education to young people.

“I know I have a reputation for getting things done and not letting things stand in my way, but it’s all about seeing what’s right for the students, for the staff and the families. We never say no, we always try to find a way to do the best for them.”

Uplands today is a great deal more than one school. Under the auspices of the Uplands Educational Trust set up in 2012, there are now three charity shops in the town which provide work experience for students and have become mini-community centres, and there are plans for another two. A learning centre providing supported learning and social enterprise for 19 to 25 year olds was set up in 2014 with ten students. There are now 75. There’s also a small farm near Minety providing training opportunities, a social enterprise centre in Penhill where young people invite residents in for coffee and tea, and a tie-in with a housing association which provides supported housing to former students.

Jackie became the executive headteacher after the UET was formed so that she could have oversight of the school and the charity. Deidre Fitzpatrick is now head of Uplands responsible for improving standards and ensuring high quality teaching and learning.

Jackie said: “It all started because I wanted to rent a shop to give students real world work opportunities. As a school it wasn’t possible to take a lease on a shop but a charitable trust could. Money was not the motivation at all; I always thought so long as costs were covered, the benefit of work experience would be enormous.

“Residential and educational places for young people with disabilities after they leaving school are so hard to come by and usually out-of-county and a long way from family. If continued support is not available some leave school and become isolated at home. After opening the shop it quickly became apparent that we could do so much more to provide opportunities for the young people in their own communities. The post 19 training is designed to prepare them for paid work where this is appropriate and employers are starting to provide placements for our graduates.

“From that first step with the shop, the model we’ve developed has enormous potential to support people with disabilities as they grow older but we need to ensure what we’re doing is sustainable, so we can’t rush ahead with initiatives.”

Under Jackie’s leadership Uplands received the prestigious TES Award for overall best school in 2015, it holds a number of awards including Standards of Excellence from the National Autistic Society, Investors in People, the Arts Council and Healthy Schools. And Ofsted has graded the school as outstanding.

The citation from the honours award office comments that Jackie Smith ‘introduced the Learning Mentor Programme which gives support to the most challenging pupils by helping them meet their full potential through individualised programmes.

‘Through her determination to help all children with SEN and physical disabilities, she created the Uplands Education Trust (UET). This charity has increased the education and work-related skills and experience of children and young people by opening three charity shops and a discrete learning centre.

‘Her visionary and innovative leadership have made a huge impact on the lives of hundreds of families in Swindon and the surrounding area.’

Top, photo call for Jackie Smith. Centre and below, dancing and signing with children at Uplands. All photos by Richard Wintle of Calyx

jackie smith mbe, uplands special school