Inspirational mum nominated for public servant award

Helen Backus has been nominated for a public servant award
Helen Backus has been nominated for a public servant award

An inspirational mum has been nominated for an award for launching a scheme which helped disabled youngsters stay in education.

Bucks County Council employee Helen Backus set up Bucks Life Skills Centres after learning that 90% of disabled young people have to leave the county to continue their post-16 education.

Five years later the figure has been reduced right down to 10%, with the centres having helped more than 200 young people.

Now Ms Backus is one of five inspirational people from across the country nominated for the award of Public Servant of the Year at the Guardian newspaper’s Public Service Awards.

Ms Backus, known for her brightly coloured hair and lively personality started her career as a medic in the Royal Air Force.

She said: “My background is operational and business management – I’m very much about facts and figures, strategy, feasibility and programme management.”

Ms Backus founded the centres after speaking to a tearful mum who asked her whether she felt it was right her disabled son had to move hundreds of miles away in order to take his A-levels.

Ms Backus, the county council’s commissioning manager for young people said: “I simply replied as a fellow mum that it wasn’t right at all.

“I could see there was a huge gap in provision and then it was a case of getting everyone together to find the way forward to fill that gap.”

The result was the launch of the Life Skills Centre at Aylesbury College in 2012, which proved so successful a similar centre was opened in 2016 in Flackwell Heath in partnership with Amersham and Wycombe College.

The centre provides a unique mix of academic, independent living and vocational education.

Young people develop life skills which help them with day-to-day living, such as budgeting, using public transport independently, keeping active, and cooking meals.

They also receive training and education in work-based subjects and college courses of their choice, such as computer programming as well as taking part in regular work experience placements at local organisations and charities.

There is also a financial benefit for taxpayers – sending a young person to an outside specialist college can cost the council more than £100,000 per placement, but the average cost for a placement at the centre is £40,000.

Ms Backus regularly appears at conferences showcasing the county council’s approach to other authorities.

So far 12 other councils have enquired about setting up their own scheme, with Milton Keynes and Harrow having recently opened centres.

Ms Backus also advises Parliament on transition in education issues as part of the All Party Parliamentary Advisory Groups for Autism.

She said: “A lot of our young people, from a young age, had been told they weren’t able to do this or that, but are now in employment or have set their own businesses up.

“It has been amazing to watch and an absolute privilege not only to witness but be part of.

“They are the real inspiration and make my job one of the most rewarding in the world.”

Mike Appleyard, deputy leader and cabinet member for health and wellbeing said: “This is well deserved recognition for Helen’s fantastic work.

“I have seen first-hand the difference the Life Skill Centres have made to countless young people, who can now receive a top quality education bespoke to their needs locally rather than enduring the gut-wrenching experience of having to move away from their families.

“She is a role model for other public servants and I’ll certainly be encouraging people to vote for her.”

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