Support one of our members with Guardian Public Service Awards 2016 Public Servant of the Year

Five public servants have been shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Public Servant of the Year award, which is now open online for public vote.

Voting closes at midnight on 30 September 2016, You may vote only once. https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2016/sep/14/guardian-public-service-awards-2016-public-servant-of-the-year-shortlist-vote-now

Helen Backus

Commissioning Manager, Buckinghamshire County Council

An ex-RAF medic and a member of Stoke Mandeville Stadium, Helen Backus became commissioning manager for young people at Buckinghamshire county council five years ago. At that time, 90% of young people with disabilities or additional needs who wanted to access post-16 education had to move outside the county, far away from their homes.

Thanks to the Bucks’ Life Skills Centres Backus pioneered, that figure has been cut to 10%, helping more than 200 young people since 2012. “Uprooting a young person with autism and shipping them out miles away can be a gut-wrenching experience and a lot of them were the failing and going into crisis and needing a lot more support once they came back home,” she explains.

Backus put together a business case for offering specialist college units in the county, got local colleges onboard and convinced a cash-strapped council to build them using limited reserves. The first, Aylesbury Life Skills College, was funded by the department of education, Aylesbury College and Buckinghamshire county council in 2012 and a second unit in Flackwell Heath opened earlier this year.

“I love hearing what the students are doing now, these are children who had been written off – for example, one was told he’d never be able to independently travel, now he can read timetables and travels all over the country on local transport.”

The initiative has been so successful that 12 other councils are now looking to set up something similar, with Milton Keynes and Harrow recently opening their own centres. Backus also advises parliament on transition in education as part of the All Party Parliamentary Advisory Groups for autism and learning difficulties.

“I don’t know anyone who works for a local authority and just does their hours, but 50 hours will only feel like 15 if you’re in the right place,” she says.