9th October 2020 | Surrey Views

Keeping GASP a safe place

Blog by Sally Varah, MBE DL

Sally was Chair of Trustees at the GASP Motor Project from 2009 to 2019 and is now a Patron of the charity. 

I’ve always believed that the GASP Motor Project workshop at Albury, in the tranquility of the Surrey Hills – together with the fully equipped mobile units – deliver so much more than basic engineering and motor mechanics tuition to the young people who are referred to the charity’s specialist programmes.

Alongside discovering how to strip down a four stroke engine, restore a go-kart or build an electric kit car (that’s just three examples), these often marginalised students – who, for a range of reasons, may have become disengaged with classroom learning – get the chance to develop their concentration and self esteem and to respect others as they work in a team. Importantly they discover at GASP that they ‘can do’ … when consistently their experience of education had made them believe that they could not!

And that new found confidence – gained head-first in a bonnet or feet-first under a chassis – encourages transferable skills when the GASP programme ends. I still remember the Head of a Special School explaining to me the pride of one SEN pupil who had jumped three reading levels after he completed a 10-week motor mechanics course with GASP!

So why does all this matter even more in the Covid-19 crisis?  Because over the years, we have seen that GASP becomes an educational sanctuary for many of the girls and boys who have the opportunity to learn here. They may be on the ‘at risk’ register, find it hard to focus in a mainstream setting, have special needs, been bullied, or face possible exclusion from school. Some are young homeless, wrestling with their demons.

At GASP, they find themselves being taught in a workshop setting (static or mobile) that’s very different to a classroom, by instructors (qualified engineers) who adopt a no-nonsense ‘hands on’ approach. The nature of the work they are tasked to undertake forces them to focus and to forget that they are actually engaged in ‘learning’. No wonder that week-on-week they often come to see GASP as a refuge.

Over the months of coronavirus lockdown all this was denied to the very young people in our communities who have been most in need of a safe place, either because they are on the periphery of mainstream education, are experiencing additional mental health issues as a result of lockdown, or for family reasons that put them at risk (or all of these). We know that attendance at short stay schools (PRUs) was down to just two across Surrey at one point in lockdown. And there are real concerns that some students won’t return to their education setting this month (September).

For five months GASP was unable to operate and to provide that sanctuary (even remotely) as an alternative learning provider. That was despite the CEO, those of the team not furloughed, and the Trustees working actively with referring partners to try to find ways to make it happen. In this, the charity is no different to organisations globally as it embraces extensive ‘What if’ scenario planning:  Covid on site; Covid in a school bubble; Covid in school; and the practical and financial impact of staff having to self-isolate (practical and financial).

My own links with GASP go back to 2009 and so the invitation to write this introductory Blogfelt right for me.  But it also felt right to write it when I could report that GASP is once again open for business. And it is. On 19th August, one of the GASP Mobile Units arrived at the Amber Foundation near Dorking to deliver the first of a 10-week programme of workshops to a group of young adults experiencing homelessness. Isolated throughout lockdown, they are enthusiastically learning new skills that might lead them into further training and/or employment, and discovering how good it feels to work as a team.

And there’s more. The Workshop sessions re-opened on 8th September, with a new cohort of students ‘at risk of exclusion’ from Jubilee High School starting on a one-year programme. The team reports that the students adapted easily to the PPE and Covid-19 policies. By mid September 2020 another four groups had started back.

All this could change tomorrow, or next week, or next month, of course. What the past tumultuous months have shown us is that no amount of meticulous preparation and planning can defend an organisation against a rising Covid R number, until we have a vaccine. But for now the ‘new normal’ looks positive and l want to end by congratulating all those who are working so collaboratively to maintain GASP as the educational sanctuary it has been for more than a decade. Despite Covid-19, they are keeping it a safe place for some of the most vulnerable young people in our Surrey communities.

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