Pioneer for disabled youth needs your vote

Helen Backus
Helen Backus

A woman who spearheaded a pioneering scheme which helps disabled youngsters stay in education has been shortlisted for Public Servant of the Year award.

Helen Backus set up Bucks’ Life Skills Centres in response to a staggering 90% of disabled young people having to leave the county to continue their post-16 education. Five years later the figure is just 10%, with the centres having helped more than 200 young people.

Helen now joins four other people from across the country in a public vote to decide who is crowned Public Servant of the Year in the Guardian’s Public Service Awards. The ceremony takes place in London in November and is free for Helen to attend.

Helen, who started her career as a medic in the RAF, serving in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, is employed by Buckinghamshire County Council as commissioning manager for young people.

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

She recalls 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.

Helen 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 centres’ approach provides a unique mix of academic, independent living and vocational education. Young people are helped to develop crucial life skills to 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 centre averages £40,000.

Helen regularly appears at conferences showcasing the 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.

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

Helen added: “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.”

To vote for Helen visit