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Member Interview: Joe Selmes, Weatherfield Academy – Building Critical Links Between Education and Business

Written by Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce | 29 Jun 2023

For Joe Selmes, Headteacher of Bedfordshire special needs school Weatherfield Academy, it’s all about the “I can” – instilling in his pupils the belief that, done their way, achievement, progress, and excellence are well within their reach.

It’s an inspiring mantra for an inspiring school, but Joe is also a supremely pragmatic leader. He sees the Chamber as an environment where an honest, open dialogue can be had to prepare Weatherfield pupils for work in local businesses, and to prepare local businesses to expect the kind of learners Weatherfield so proudly produces.

There’s a lot more to it than this, however, and we were lucky enough to get a virtual meeting in Joe’s busy diary to give his thoughts a proper airing.

Just doing what every school should

One of the things that comes out very strongly in our interview with Joe is his conviction that the connection between local schools and local businesses is critical.

He’s been a teacher at the school since 2000, and Head since 2011, when the school also joined the Chamber, and based on his own networking and speaking activities there, he asserts that “educational institutions in general should be building much more profound links” with it.

The Chamber, he says, has been extremely helpful in offering advice and guidance to prepare school leavers for work, and in articulating the skills and competences that local businesses are looking for in young recruits.

Further, it proactively matches Weatherfield pupils to work placements, giving them a helping hand into the adult world beyond school.

Overcoming learners’ challenges

Clearly, the demands of work can pose a challenge for delayed learners, but it’s a challenge the school has gone way beyond the extra mile to overcome.

It has its own pupil-run business, selling produce from its grounds and farm, and it teaches vital economic life-skills like money management, loans, and debt.

Joe says these initiatives address the “life gaps” that even mainstream schools struggle to cover, and the results of such a practical, skills-focused, workplace-friendly education are impressive.

Since 2017, 100% of Weatherfield’s school leavers have found a job, or achieved an internship or work placement.

And the combination of a curriculum that enables pupils to develop at their own pace, and the work of the Chamber in helping local employers to understand how Weatherfield’s pupils learn and work best, is a potent one.

Joe cites one case of a pupil with particular learning challenges who is now in a store management position for a national retail chain.  

This is “I can” in action.

Getting and giving back

But Joe’s pragmatism shines through strongest in his understanding of how communities, schools, and business can work together in a “virtuous circle” that encompasses give as well as take.

“We spend taxpayers’ money in this school,” he explains, “so I’m determined to give something back by shaping and developing pupils who can then help the communities that have paid for their education.”

But he’s keen to point out that this doesn’t just happen when a pupil leaves the school. Membership of the Chamber has enabled the school to do businesses with local suppliers the whole year round – from accountants, to electricians and building contractors, and more.

“By preferring local businesses through the Chamber, we get a better, more cost-effective, more personalised level of service,” he continues. “Plus, we’re once again giving back to the communities that enable us to exist.”

And these are relationships that often go beyond mere service provision. When the school needed its outbuildings revarnishing recently, for example, it was Chamber staff and local suppliers who gave up a weekend to help.

In short, there’s no doubt: Weatherfield can, and it does – and Joe is clear that he is “honoured” to be a member of a Chamber that supports it so effectively along the way.

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of Chamber membership, call us on (01582) 522448.

Topics: Weatherfield Academy, member interview

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