You may recall that back in April of last year, a unique opportunity arose for our team and a number of community organisations in Lancashire, offering a chance to influence the 'Core20plus5' approach aimed at reducing health inequalities. The NHS 'Dragons Den' style co-production event, facilitated by the Personalised Care and NHS Lancashire and South Cumbria ICB’s, brought together several community organisations working hard to make a difference, and to secure £10,000 of funding towards a co-produced project.

Through this, our team at Care Network partnered with Preston based Wot Wud U Do, BwD Health Watch and the BwD Carers Service. This partnership led to the 'Education through Engagement' programme - a pilot project designed to enhance the mental health and emotional wellbeing of young individuals grappling with learning disabilities and Autism in our local area.

The strength of this partnership stemmed from the diverse skill sets, knowledge and relationships that each organisation brought to the table. Our collaborative effort delivered a compelling and impactful program benefiting not only young people with learning disabilities and autism in Blackburn with Darwen, but also their families, carers, adults facing similar challenges, and the broader community.

  • Care Network provides support for adults with learning disabilities and autism in Blackburn with Darwen and leads on the Learning Disability and Autism Boards in the borough.
  • Wot Wud U Do is a community organisation based in Preston that empowers young minds through collaborative creation and delivery of lived experienced resources.
  • Blackburn with Darwen’s Carers’ Service provides essential support to families and carers of young people with learning disabilities.
  • Health Watch Blackburn with Darwen is the local champion for people’s voice in health and social care, ensuring that commissioners and providers respond to the needs of local residents and involve them both in the design and delivery of services.

The culmination of our collaborative effort resulted in a resounding victory at the Dragon's Den event, securing the £10,000 of funding. Judges were unequivocal in their praise, with comments such as, “The easiest decision I have made in a long time.” and “Hands down, clear winners.” underscoring the impact and potential of our initiative.

The Reason Why

Understanding the challenges faced by young individuals with learning disabilities in attaining mental health diagnoses is critical. Often, symptoms are mistaken for inherent aspects of their disability, delaying essential interventions (Mind, 2021). An early intervention approach becomes paramount to prevent the need for more intensive and costly treatments later in life.

The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted the mental health of vulnerable groups, including those with learning disabilities. Blackburn and Darwen’s Public Health reported staggering statistics indicating a stark rise in probable mental disorders among children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND), underscoring the urgency for early intervention (Blackburn and Darwen’s Public Health).

Recognising this urgent need, the Education through Engagement program was conceived and delivered by adults with learning disabilities and autism. Termed ‘Champions,’ these individuals utilised their lived experiences to engage young people facing similar challenges. The aim was to foster resilience, equip them with skills, and bolster their self-belief, facilitating a smoother transition to independent adulthood.

The program strategically coincided with a pivotal period in young people’s lives—transitioning from Children’s Services to Adults Services. Adding strength to this initiative, two prominent education charities, Education and Employers & Speakers for Schools, collaborated on a report that underscored the positive impact of external speakers in secondary schools (Percy, 2019). The findings highlighted substantial improvements in attitudes, motivation, and understanding among students who attended these sessions, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Education Through Engagement Programme

Over a span of 12 weeks, our Champions underwent intensive training and development, leveraging their lived experiences to co-create valuable content focused on various aspects of mental health and emotional well-being. This content was designed to resonate with young individuals facing similar challenges.

The culmination of this collaborative effort resulted in a series of workshops conducted during school hours at Crosshill School in Blackburn with Darwen. These workshops were specifically tailored for young people aged 14-16, offering a safe space for open discussions on crucial mental health topics.

The workshops featured guest speakers from local services, including the NHS Health Check, providing a platform for young people and their families or carers to gain insights into wider support networks and activity providers available within the borough. The impact was tangible, as expressed by one participant who said:

“It was good to learn the names of places and people we could go to for help and advice.”

The sessions proved to be transformative, not solely providing crucial information but also nurturing a sense of empowerment and resilience among the students. This was evident through students’ affirmations, such as, “...we understand more about anxiety now,” and their appreciation for learning new coping strategies during challenging times.

The experiences shared by the Champions had a profound impact on the students’ perspectives on transitioning to college and managing their mental health and wellbeing. Students expressed gratitude for gaining insights into others’ experiences, resonating with older individuals facing similar challenges, saying:

“It was good to learn about other people’s experiences, especially seeing that older people had the same experiences as us and shared the same difficulties and disabilities.”

The sessions went beyond imparting knowledge; they sparked a deeper understanding and empathy among the students. By incorporating and  embracing real-life, shared experiences and learning from the Champions, students felt more equipped to navigate their mental health journey and transitions to college will be easier, stating:

the Champions helped us to understand what transition to college will be like.

The Champions

The feedback from the Champions involved in the project reflects their transformative journey, overcoming fears, embracing challenges, and gaining invaluable skills and insights. Here are the key highlights from their evaluation:

  • The filming process and speaking in front of a camera during the project added pressure, but proved to be a learning curve, elevating their resilience and confidence levels. They mentioned the fear they had not only of being filmed, but also towards the young people at first, stating, “it was scary,” and, “I was nervous that the kids were not going to be interested in my experiences.” Despite initial apprehensions and misconceptions of young people, the Champions were pleasantly surprised by the receptiveness of the students, altering their perceptions of young individuals, stating, "The kids listened, were sensible and asked questions.” In addition, one Champion highlighted pushing past the initial fear and discomfort, showcasing resilience and determination, "It was scary at first but I learnt to push past it and just do it. Speaking in front of a class, helped me grow my confidence.

  • Regarding professional development, another Champion's experience emphasised the development of their professionalism, focusing on language and presentation skills, stating, “I had to be conscious of speaking, my language, and what words to say due to being watched by others.” This Champion reported an increase in confidence, inspiring a potential career path in delivering peer sessions and presenting her lived experience to a wider audience in the future.

  • Overall, the champions valued the collaborative journey, contributing to an end goal that added value to themselves and others. Their communications skills were enhanced, through peer learning and the diverse perspectives and backgrounds among the Champions. Furthermore, they developed teamwork skills, supporting each other and collectively presenting to the class. Although, the coproduction process posed initial challenges in structuring presentations, but was seen as an integral part of the learning process.

  • The Champions also reported an increase in public speaking skills and learned to adapt language, and behaviours when addressing different audiences, especially children. With the project aligning with social prescribing models as it increased the awareness of organizations like Purple Patch, prompting a desire to further promote local organizations and their support services.

Upon reflection, the Champions found it to be an opportunity to showcase their contributions, which instilled a sense of pride in what they had achieved. The feedback showcases the Champions’ personal growth, the acquisition of valuable skills, and the profound impact of their engagement with students. It underscores the transformative power of lived experiences and highlights the potential avenues for future development and support for the Champions involved in similar initiatives.

The champions
Pictured above: The Champions at Care Network, Blackburn with Darwen

Teacher Feedback

The concept and idea are a great one and I feel the students benefited from the champions coming in and speaking about their own experiences and adapting each week to suit the learners really helped. They also enjoyed the session from NHS health check.”

However, further feedback highlighted the need for an introductory session:

"The champions and students could get to know each other through ice breakers and team games so that when the sessions do start, they feel comfortable to ask questions as they know each other, as some students after the session did mention that they were on the quiet side as they didn’t know them.” In Addition, "The sessions just finished abruptly, it would be nice if the students had some recognition for participating and that could be a little celebration with the Champions and the other professionals that were involved or even a certificate or goody bag.

Whilst mental health and emotional wellbeing is being addressed by Blackburn and Darwin schools through the introduction of the Mental Health in Schools team, this is a targeted approach for supporting individuals and the whole school approach to addressing students’ emotional wellbeing is at an early stage of development. The headteacher stated, “I fully support the idea and it should be something that continues to be offered out to schools and I’m sure Crosshill would be happy to have you again next year if you continue with the project.

Next Steps

This programme included the East Lancashire Child and Adolescent Services (ELCAS) in the consultations. We proposed that the Education through Engagement programme takes a whole school approach that uses lived experience to open conversations with young people. During these conversations, key information would be passed on to the mental health in schools team for follow up targeted interventions. The refining the referral process is a next step as we believe the programme can reduce waiting lists.

From our experience, it is evident that most young people just need someone to talk to, and not everyone requires an intensive crisis intervention. If we can identify those who really need the help through conversations with the champions, going into more detail about their lived experiences, we can normalise asking for, and accepting help.

In addition, we know that families and carers are key to supporting the emotional health and wellbeing of young people with learning disabilities and autism. As such, we proposed to hold a series workshop with parents and carers before, and after we delivered the workshops with students. Informing and educating families on the programme - highlighting expectations of their involvement and how they can continue the conversations at home - supporting them to access the support they need locally from services and activity providers, working alongside local community, health and social care professionals to provide tailored information, guidance and signposting.

However, due to capacity and a lack or resources, we had to forgo this aspect and represents a next step to further build the effectiveness of this programme.


Utilising the lived experience of local adults to co=produce educational resources and deliver presentations, not only reduces social isolation, but also improves the ‘Champions’ employability and interpersonal skills. Students benefited from hearing about real life experiences, improving their self management skills and easing their life after school anxieties.

More will be done to build upon the success of the Education through Engagement programme. The social rate of return for this project (provided by the Personalised Care Team) is £59 with a contribution calculated at £5 for every £1 spent, thus providing significant added value to the investment made by the NHS.

This project was also independently reviewed that the University of Central Lancashire: A contextual evaluation of the Education through Engagement programme.