5 mins read

#DNBusinessTalks – Gemma Peebles (Principal Harrison College)

Knocking on/down doors


This is a series of stories told by leaders in the Doncaster area (City of). These stories have been curated by me (Kurt Ewald Lindley) as part of a collaboration between Doncaster CouncilDoncaster Chamber of Commerce, and other Team Doncaster members, to showcase not just the best of Doncaster but to inform the development of Doncaster’s Economic Strategy and

“make it the best place to do business”

Sitting in the reception of Harrison College waiting to see Gemma, I’m afforded the opportunity to skip through some press articles regarding the college’s rise to fame. It strikes me how quick (in the grand scheme of life) Gemma and the team have gone from 1 pupil in November of 2019 to 60 pupils as of this academic year.

A short time later I’m greeted by Gemma and taken for a walk around the building, meeting Buzz the College ‘therapy dog’ (who likes to get in on the action) along with staff and pupils in mid-flow of a lesson on ‘employability’, a key focus for the college.

For those who don’t know Harrison College, situated in one of Doncaster’s Business parks is a specialist post-16 education provider for students with autism and special educational needs, focusing on business, enterprise and employability.

The Journey – Kids who didn’t fit in a box 

I wanted to get straight to the ‘Why?’ question with Gemma, as I knew this endeavour was one that would not have been a simple nor easy journey – so why take it on.

 “Coming out of my 12th year of teaching (working in education) I saw loads of kids that ‘didn’t fit in a box’, then later as a consultant I saw that there was a gap in the education landscape, so I looked to set up Harrison College”

Gemma followed this with a bold statement, one I find myself pondering as someone of the neurodivergent community (dyslexic)…

“I don’t believe the system is right for anyone”

This was the fuel for Gemma. She sat with her partner Mike and said “I want to set up a school”. His response “you can’t”. Well, she did, in February of 2019 Gemma registered the College as an entity in its own right. Although at that point it was no more than an idea and her college site was her kitchen.

Over the next 9 months she researched, networked, knocked on and down doors. With a £5,000 budget (and no salary paid to her for the 1st year) she found a home for the college at Beta Technology on Heavens Walk (Doncaster). Kitted it out with gifts in kind, help from local businesses and some investment from cash for kids.

“the College at this point was built on favours”

In November 2019 she enrolled one pupil, success! In March 2020 there were two, then Covid closed the doors. Although that didn’t mean things stopped. In September 2020 Gemma had recruited 26 pupils, in September 2021 the College had 48 pupils. Now she and her team are serving 60 young adults. Helping them find their destination within and beyond Doncaster. Oh, and remember Mike, Gemma’s partner who was rightly cautious about this endeavour. Well, he not only was shown its possible, he’s actually joined the team as Business Development Director.

For those of you who know Gemma she presents as a strong figure, with clarity of purpose in all she does. Which I guess is what has enabled the College to grow in such a fashion. However, there is another side only few see. When I asked Gemma to talk to me about how this journey ‘felt’ and what it meant personally, she paused (long pause) and said, “I’m not sure I can tell you”. Her demeaner changed and a softer emotive Gemma then spoke.

“my son’s name is Harrison. Its on everything. When people say his name 30-40 times a day it gets you. It’s what drives me, to create a legacy for him. If I took a step back and thought about all this, I’d cry”

 I left it there…it’s clear the college is more than just a job

 Challenges in Business – Breaking into the market

 “Just breaking into the market, itself is hard, its dominated by some big players who have been around for a long time”

The challenge was convincing all the stakeholders, from parents to decision makers in the system that “Harrison College was the right place for these kids”. This makes me wonder how we may make the journey for others easier. Not to lose the robust nature of any checking process, but more to open people’s eyes to the possibility of ‘small(er)’ alternative providers vs the already big established institutions out there.

Lessons for others – Good people

Two succinct lessons I don’t think any of us would disagree with…

  1. Stick with an idea you are confident with and keep going“Succeed or fail you will learn”
  2. Work with good people, don’t cut costs when it comes to employment – “bring people in which match what you don’t have (experience, skill, knowledge, attribute)”

Advice to a younger you (and the ones who didn’t choose so well)

“listen to advice, I wish I’d listened sooner. You don’t have to change things because of the advice but listen to their rationale”

Gemma went on to add – “let more people in sooner”. I get a feeling a lot of Gemma’s early journey has been done as a solo endeavour. Having more people to support and guide along the way is invaluable.

The Legacy – change 

“in 20-30 years I’d like to think we have changed the way we think about education, skills, careers and DESTINATIONS”

Gemma really would like to change the narrative around education. Not to compete with the existing system but to broaden societies perspective on the journey for young people. One that is in equal balance between those who wish to choose Redbrick or Russell Group Universities and those that see work placements, apprenticeship, and employment as their route. Admittedly she would like to see a stronger focus on ‘preparing young people for work’ over the achievement of certificates for academic study (that may never see its opportunity for application).

The Call to Action – Find a destination

I asked Gemma “what’s your call to action for the business community”, her response:

“come in and see us, see our pupils and the value they can offer you”

This is a loud call if there ever was one. Gemma has a desire to work with businesses to change their perception of neurodiversity and to give the young people of `Harrison College’ a chance.

“Help us to be successful, help a young person find their destination”

Gemma shared, she recognised that neurodivergent people may seem ‘hard work’. This could be true to some extent for those that don’t understand enough about the area. However, with understanding comes awareness and with this comes and opportunity to maximise the assets neurodivergent people bring… here is just a few in relation to Autism.

Strengths include the ability to assimilate and retain detailed information, problem-solving, being data-driven and logical thinking. In addition autistic people frequently prove to be punctual, reliable, dedicated and loyal employees.

Your one ask of ‘Team Doncaster’

On a wider level, Gemma’s request was to improve the awareness of SENDIAS (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information, Advice and Support) within our communities. Do people in our towns around Doncaster know what they are entitled to when it comes to help and support and do they know how to access it.

If we can improve access to and speed of support, we can help families sooner and possibly improve destination data (young people getting into work).

This leads into Gemma’s second request. 

“Back Harrison College, level the playing field”

 If you back Harrison College, you increase the likelihood of a young person with Autism getting to employment…. What’s important to recognise here is the ripple effect of this positive outcome.

If a young person at Harrison College finds employment, they will generate their own income (so will require less support from the system). If this young person continues in employment they create stability at home, which means parents who may have been carers can return to work and themselves generate an income (with this comes pride and a greater independence from any state support). Their wellbeing scores as a family increase and we all want this.

In closing

Gemma (and her team) is one of many who are making Doncaster the best place to do business. And its from her story and the stories of others that ‘Team Doncaster’ hope to create a robust, prosperous Economic Strategy for our City.

I’ll leave you with a final line from our meeting:

“when your son’s name is on everything you have to do your best every day”

Do you have a story or know of a Doncaster Leader with a story to share for #DNBusinessTalks, get in touch here