Magazine article Public Finance

Leading Lights

Magazine article Public Finance

Leading Lights

Article excerpt

Independent travel training team - Tower Hamlets

Winner: Outstanding Public Service Team of the Year; Changing lives - the award for community-facing services

Sharon Whiteman pauses. Yes, the independent travel training scheme her team has pioneered at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has saved the council a significant amount of money, but she adds: 'For me, the best benefit is to the students and the way it changes their lives, and it really does change their lives.'

Learning to cross the road safely is a fundamental part of growing up. With the help of the Tufty Club, the Green Cross Code and the mantra of Stop, Look, Listen, most of us are drilled in road safety in our formative years. By the time we start secondary school, catching a bus or train to get us that bit further presents no obstacle.

But for children with special educational needs, it can be a different story. Protected, understandably, by concerned parents and bussed to and from school, these children often grow up dependent on others and lacking the street sense and skills they need to get from A to B on their own.

That's why the work of Tower Hamlets' independent travel training team - which has just scooped the Changing Lives and Outstanding Public Service Team of the Year awards - is so pioneering. Over the past two years, project manager Whiteman and trainers Holly Barker and Mandy Flynn have helped more than 100 children with special needs to learn how to cross roads safely and travel around London's often-labyrinthine public transport system.

And the accolades have been rolling in. As well as the Public Finance award, the team has won Tower Hamlets' own outstanding achievement award for children's services and is inundated with requests to share its secrets with other authorities.

Kevan Collins, corporate director for children's services at Tower Hamlets, nominated the team for the PF award. He says the benefits of the scheme are felt beyond the trip to and from school. 'For many [children] this is the beginning of a wider journey into increased independence, for example, after-school activities and ultimately training and employment... It has incredible benefits in terms of confidence and freedom to mix with their peers.'

Whiteman attributes the team's success to the fact that they all love their work and gain a huge amount of personal satisfaction from it. The support they have received from senior management at the council and elected members is also important, she says.

'We are really fortunate because we work in an environment where we are allowed to develop [how] we feel we should develop, and are given free rein.'

Barker agrees. 'Children's needs are so vast, you're never going to meet two young people who are the same and who have the same needs. Through doing this role, my skills and knowledge have grown.'

But the change is most remarkable in the children themselves. For single mum Christine Weemes, the difference in her daughter Rebecca has been astounding. Rebecca, who is now 13, began her training in the summer holiday before she was due to start secondary school. The team likes to make the most of this long vacation to work intensively with children making the major transition from primary to secondary education. Whiteman's view is that the younger the children, the more effective the training, with the benefits felt for the rest of their lives.

For Rebecca, a quiet child, lacking in confidence and young for her age, the training was initially very challenging. 'She was extremely nervous, she would burst into tears and have small panic attacks,' her mother remembers. But after working closely with trainer Mandy and talking through her fears, Rebecca overcame that initial hurdle and made rapid progress.

Weemes says: 'For Rebecca, the training has been invaluable for her confidence. And for me there's the feeling that I can now go to work and I don't have to worry about her. …

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