Two Berkshire mothers who helped change the system

PUBLISHED: 16:38 07 November 2016 | UPDATED: 16:51 07 November 2016

Daniela and Helen have formed a great bond: but it didn't start that way

Daniela and Helen have formed a great bond: but it didn't start that way


Two mothers set out to ‘change the system’ with remarkable results. Paula Scott reveals what can be achieved with determination and support

Daniela Shanly and Helen Costa are two Berkshire women who met through their common experience as adoptive parents. Both faced challenges but, instead of accepting the status quo, took matters into their own hands to change the system. One has established a school for children with emotional development needs and the other has created a social enterprise which influences government policy and provides mentoring, training and support for adoptive parents. The two have become great friends, but it took a while for them to realise how much they have in common.

“Without realising it, Daniela and I sat in the same room seven years ago as prospective adoptive parents,” explains Helen. “We were undertaking an Adoption Preparation Course and were both at the start of our journeys. For whatever reason we didn’t click then and it was years later before we came into contact.”

Daniela takes up the story: “When I saw my child really struggling at school I knew he needed a different kind of educational environment. He was at a lovely school, but it wasn’t working out for him. At Parents Evening his teacher told me very frankly that she didn’t think a school existed which could support him appropriately. It was difficult news to receive but she turned out to be my saviour as she encouraged me to start Beech Lodge.

“Our conversations led me to believe that there was a need for a different type of school; a small school which could provide an alternative, nurturing environment to encourage emotional and social development, which would in turn unlock the door to academic success.”

So in 2013, Daniela teamed up with another parent, Emma Barklem, and future head teacher Lucy Barnes to set up Beech Lodge School.

Daniela continues: “Beech Lodge is primarily suited to children who have emotional support needs. My son was nearly three when we adopted him and had experienced a number of difficulties during those early years. Elements of neglect and abuse will leave their mark – not so much in a child’s memory but deep in their psyche. As a consequence, children with these backgrounds may not have the building blocks needed to function in mainstream education.

“Emotional and social development issues can manifest themselves as so-called behavioural difficulties. I don’t like to think of them as behavioural problems. They are unable to cope in certain situations and what they need is a completely different kind of environment.”

Beech Lodge, currently based on two sites near Maidenhead, has a very high teacher to pupil ratio and provides a tailored and flexible approach. As well as regular lessons, children enjoy outdoor play and lessons outside, yoga, street dancing and cookery. There is specialist teaching for Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and attachment-related difficulties as well as access to therapeutic interventions such as Speech and Language, Occupational and Play Therapy.

Daniela continues: “We also want our children to become robust and effective members of society, so from around 14 years old we encourage them to take part in vocational courses as well as academic subjects. Our seniors are currently on a site at the BCA so they can access courses where they are learning something useful and mixing with lots of different children and young adults from outside the Beech Lodge bubble.”

Three and a half years on, the school is a success story. Pupils are “exceeding national expectations” and Ofsted has given it a “Good – with outstanding features” rating. In the last six months educational psychologists working with Beech Lodge children have developed an educational resource called Fagus which can be used by schools all over the country.

There are 26 pupils currently attending Beech Lodge and an increasingly long waiting list. Planning permission was granted in August for a brand new school which will be built on the outskirts of Maidenhead. This will have places for 96 junior and senior school age children. The planning process was complicated and it was the planning application which brought Daniela and Helen Costa into contact again.

Daniela explains: “Helen lives near the site of the proposed new school and objected. We can laugh about it now, but at the time I was incensed! I googled her, discovered she was an adoptive parent and recognised her from our Adoption Preparation Group. I wrote to her, but to no avail. The next time we met was at the launch of The Cornerstone Parnership in March last year where Helen gave a presentation. I was, somewhat grudgingly, blown away by her professionalism and brilliance and afterwards we chatted.”

Helen says: “When Daniela and I spoke the blinkers came off and I understood what she was trying to achieve with the proposed site. I was never going to stand in the way of such a brilliant project. My own challenges with the adoption system had come earlier in the process. I was frustrated because families were not receiving enough preparation and support early on.”

Her answer was to set up The Cornerstone Partnership with Clare Brasier in 2014. Helen devised a user-led programme of support providing therapeutic parenting courses for adults adopting or waiting to adopt, as well as a mentoring scheme of volunteers from the adoption community.

With a background of running large teams and major projects in central and regional government – including high profile national projects such as the restructuring of UK’s nuclear liabilities and securing the London Olympics – Helen used her knowledge of the public and private sector to attract corporate support.

“Because I had been through the process I knew the frustration, wanted to do something about it, and this seemed a natural course. Over the past 18 months Cornerstone has secured funding from the Department for Education and local government, reached out to more than 250 families in Berkshire and West London and is now working with 11 local authorities providing recruitment, training, support and mentoring for fostering and adoption.

“We have found local authorities are in desperate need for more foster carers. So many people have thought about fostering, but never taken that next step to find out more. We want to help connect people with that passion and drive to help children through fostering. There is such a misconception over the criteria. Many feel they are too old. But there is no age limit. If you have the patience and energy to foster then it is not too late.”

Daniela and Helen next came together when Helen hit the same frustrations that Daniela had encountered earlier with the education system.

“When my daughter began to experience problems at school, the first person I turned to was Daniela and she became my mentor,” explains Helen. “Through our meetings and conversations we have become great friends. Now our children are at the same school, in the same class and are also great mates.”

Helen responds: “To have the vision and determination to get a new school off the ground is quite something. And perhaps that is what Daniela and I share – that desire and drive to change things for the better and instead of talking about it, actually doing it.”

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