A better year ahead IT’S a really busy time, with lots happening, and I want to start with a heartfelt tribute to our amazing staff who have done such a brilliant job during the immense challenges of the past year. Hopefully, we will continue to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, and I’m delighted the charity has come through what has been the hardest period in its proud 41-year history in robust shape. There’s no doubt in my mind that the good position we are in is all down to the dedication, care and skill of the people who work with us. As a result of that financial stability, we have not only been able to invest in exciting new developments, but the trustees have agreed to an adjustment of pay gradings, bringing those on lower salary bands in line with other providers. These continue to be challenging times, but it is recognition of the hard work over the past year. Our staff have shown inspirational team spirit and I could not be prouder of what has been achieved. SINCE my last blog update, we have gone public with our ambitious plans to develop a new school in Kiora Hall, an historic building at Stockton, and I’m pleased to say the announcement has attracted significant media coverage. We have completed the signing of a 25-year lease with Stockton Borough Council, and designs for the new school have now gone out to tender. Within the next few weeks, we will have a contractor in place to start work on the site. Just writing that last sentence fills me with excitement because this is a projected that we’ve been working on for the past five years, and now we are finally seeing it come to fruition. It began with a conversation with the local authority about the benefits of establishing a school in Stockton, as well as doing outreach work in local schools, rather than autistic and neurodiverse children being educated out of the area, with all the expense and disruption that involves. It is to the council’s huge credit that they listened to the arguments about the most caring and cost-effective way to provide support for families closer to home, and we are now within touching distance of establishing a new school that will make a massive difference. Of course, Kiora Hall is just a building, and its success will depend on finding the right people to run it. We are, therefore, working with our friends at Derwentside College to recruit staff from in and around Stockton. It will be great to be able to provide jobs in an area where unemployment is relatively high, and anyone interested should remember that qualifications and previous experience in the care industry are not essential. We have an excellent induction and training programme in place for people with a caring positive attitude who want to join us. The Kiora Hall development has been a long time coming and I’ll be doing backflips when we are finally able to open – now there’s an image to conjure with! IN the meantime, the school we’ve already established on Teesside – The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre at South Bank – goes from strength to strength. At the moment, we have 16 pupils, with assessment work being carried out with another six, but we hope to have up to 30 children attending by September. The aim is to grow the positive impact we are having on Teesside families, and the team at The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre have done a magnificent job. We’ve also just had a new kitchen fitted and we’re getting our own cook, so that means we’ll no longer have to have hot meals delivered. Instead, we can prepare our own on site. Naturally, I’ll be popping down to sample the fayre! We recently had the opportunity to give Redcar MP Jacob Young and Darlington MP Peter Gibson a tour of the school and a chance to meet the staff. It’s really important that we make politicians and other influential figures more aware of the work we do, and I hope it was a useful visit. In the last few days, controversy has flared over the Government’s funding plans for helping the education system to recover from the pandemic. Education recovery tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, has quit after the Government announced a cash injection of £1.4billion instead of the £15 billion he insisted was needed. The political fall-out will no doubt continue, with demands on that money from across the education sector. We will obviously be making a case for some of those funds to be spent on special needs and the children we are supporting here in the North-East. The MPs who visited us at The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre were given the very clear message that it makes complete financial sense in the long run to put the emphasis on providing educational support for autistic and neurodiverse children, young people and adults as close to home as possible, and we will continue to make that important case. OUR expansion programme in the Tees Valley has clearly been a high priority but our focus also remains on our existing facilities in the north of the region. We are seeing numbers rising slowly in our other schools and, therefore, a lot of effort is going into a wider recruitment drive. Derwentside College continues to be a key partner and we have also benefited from the invaluable publicity we received from our partnership with the Sunderland Echo during World Autism Acceptance Week in April. Recruitment of care staff and teaching assistants remains a real challenge, but our expansion presents some really good opportunities. We are also renewing our “refer a friend” scheme at NEAS, which involves a financial reward for any member of staff who recommends someone who ends up successfully completing their probation. Meanwhile, we have also embarked on a programme of re-decorating our residential properties, as well as kitchen refits. Inevitably, there has been some wear and tear during lockdown, so it seems a good time to give the houses a bit of a makeover for the summer. FINALLY, that kind of investment in our facilities wouldn’t have been possible if the staff had not performed so amazingly well during the past year and helped us to come through the lockdown in good shape. We have a fantastic team, who did all the right things when the going got tough, and their hard work means we can, hopefully, look forward to a better year ahead. Thank you.