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Winner spotlight – VTCT Champion: Contribution to the Sector

Winner spotlight – VTCT Champion: Contribution to the Sector

Q&A: Celebrating Mary Pugsley – VTCT Excellence Awards VTCT Champion: Contribution to the Sector 2023

The VTCT Champion of the Year award is one given to someone who has made significant positive contributions to their sector and society as a whole.  The judges unanimously agreed that Mary Pugsley MBE was deserving of the inaugural award for her remarkable work.

She is the Founder and Director of Hair at The Academy – a unique training salon that provides vulnerable young people and adults with vocational education centred around inclusivity and support. This includes those who are in care, homeless, seeking asylum, have a learning disability, or mental ill health and experience significant barriers to their learning and opportunities.

Since starting The Academy in 2004, Mary and her team have supported thousands of learners in gaining qualifications that have changed the course of their futures – providing a path to further education and employment.

In this Q&A Mary tells us about how she got to where she is, the initiatives she’s most proud of and how she felt being crowned Champion of the Year.

How did you feel when you won the Champion of the Year award?

I cried.  I was so moved emotionally to be recognised by VTCT.  In fact, I could probably cry again thinking about the day! It was incredible, and for me this this is going to open so many doors. We’ve got projects going on now with the most challenged people in our society. People who can’t access education and the homeless as well, and to have won this award is just like a beacon for me. You know, we’re recognised with VTCT, what else do we need really?

Tell us about your career and how you got to where you are today?

Originally, it was just opening salons. I had about three salons, and we were finding that when young people came in from college, although they had the qualifications, they didn’t have the confidence to deal with people, and that was because of their mental health. And so consistently, we found that we were retraining effectively to give them that confidence to hold their head up.

From there, we decided to work with students who needed that support more, so if they were coming from exclusion areas, we knew that they needed that extra scaffolding around them for their learning journey. We would put that into place, and we created a model at Hair at the Academy that really does give that support.

For people who need that extra support, we get them to come in and just make sure they know that they aren’t the only people who may have mental health issues. So essentially, what we’ve created at Hair at the Academy is a model of support.

All my staff are predominantly our ex-students. So, they’ve got the empathy with these young people. They’ve been there, you know, they understand it, and they can support other learners because of that.

What made you decide to focus on individuals who may need extra support?

You know that they’re the silent voices, really. I like to think of myself as a spokesperson for them. I mean, we all know that education is a huge milestone for many people. But for so many, it’s inconceivable to them that they would get their qualifications. So, when they do finally qualify and they go out into the workplace, I feel as if it’s a gift. It just makes me so pleased for them to see them moving on as completely different people than when they came in.

Some of these students come in with their heads on the floor, and they’ve completely given up and been through so much. So, for them to study, engage, have something to work for and come out the other end with a VTCT certificate is fantastic.

Can you tell us more about some of the initiatives you’re working on or most proud of?  

We’ve taken in two adult learners who have been challenged with homelessness – they’re going through the system; they’ve been rehoused, and they need support because of their addictions that they’ve had.

However, they are amazing. I just wish I could put them on everybody’s television screen and show how well they’re doing. They’ve really engaged – they’re like sponges – they’ve just taken in all this information and are just so pleased and grateful to get the chance to be in a qualification.

They are due to pass successfully on the VTCT Level 2 Barbering certificate, and that’s that stepping stone into self-employment or into work. So for us, fantastic.

The next initiative moving from that is to develop that programme and that provision so that we can expand it.   So, we will work with companies and various people in the community in Exeter, and we’ll get the people that need it working. It’s very exciting for us. We want to help everyone who needs it, everyone who can’t access education for whatever reason.