Skillnet Group was set up in 2001. We began as Skillnet Swale in Sittingbourne, Kent. The organisation was founded by Jo Kidd and Terry Thompson, working alongside people with learning difficulties.
Jo Kidd was working for Royal Society Mencap at the time; her role was around supporting people in East Kent to speak up for themselves and set up self-advocacy groups. Just as Jo was due to meet with a group of people with learning difficulties at a sheltered workshop in Sittingbourne, the workshop was closed down. Jo ended up meeting with the people who had been using the workshop to find out what they wanted to do. After several meetings, it became clear that people wanted to learn new skills to enable them to move into work and be more independent and that they also wanted to have real control over the organisation, who supported them, how and what they wanted to learn and to be fully involved in all the decision making.
At the same time Terry was working at a local further education college. He was supporting groups of people with learning difficulties, care leavers, young offenders and other disadvantaged young people. He realised that what the college was offering was not good enough. People were placed together in very large groups (around 30 people being supported by one lecturer) with little regard for individual needs. Many people found college daunting and unfriendly and did not feel that they were learning things that they wanted to learn.
So Jo and Terry thought that they could support people to develop something better, something in which they were fully involved in all decision-making. And
somewhere that people could learn real skills and would be treated fairly, equally and with respect.
The group of people with learning difficulties agreed with this idea. The main people in this initial group were Gerard Norton, Paul Noble (and his Dad), Martin Walker, Carla and Ricky Green. Jo approached social services who said that if she supported people to set up a new service, then they would fund people's places there. Jo also spent a lot of time talking about her ideas with her friend, Rob Coe, who also worked for social services. Rob offered a lot of advice and support.
Jo invited people to join a partnership group to plan the new service, this group involved people with learning difficulties, some family members and friends and colleagues from social services, health and adult education and further education. The local social services commissioner for learning disability, Kim Hellyer, was extremely supportive as was the local health commissioner, Jo Poynter.
So Skillnet Swale was born! We called it a Community Open learning Service at the beginning. This was to distinguish it from a day centre or college. The first Coordinator of Skillnet Swale was a man called Graham Vernon, who had left a local further education college to help set up the new service with us.
Graham and Terry had good links with Canterbury College who also agreed to fund some places for people doing courses. Andy Davis was our main contact at the college and he gave a lot of support in our early days. Jo also invited Michelle Huggins, from Royal Society Mencap, to join us, particularly for her expertise in personnel and training. At the time, both Michelle and Jo were working to support the emerging Locality Reference Groups across East Kent, and the health commissioning team leading on those were very supportive, especially the lead commissioner, Sue Gratton.
Once people around the county heard about what we were doing in Sittingbourne and the fact that people were fully involved in making the decisions (that was before the word co-production was being used of course!) at Skillnet Swale they wanted something similar in their areas. So Skillnet Thanet and Skillnet Dover were born a couple of years later.
Each Skillnet Group service or project has been developed and evolved differently, based on the needs and interested of the local people involved.
Jo and Terry are now developing a new environmental and social justice project in Canterbury. The Abbot’s Mill Project: www.abbotsmillproject.co.uk