An award-winning campaigner tells Peter Archer how she balances her life as a mum and an entrepreneur
She took on Simon Cowell and won – now Anna Kennedy has tackled the Prime Minister and left him hot under the collar.
Anna is a woman with vision and a clear mission. She is a social entrepreneur who, against the odds, has established two schools, a college and a residential home for people with autism. “I remortgaged our house, lobbied banks and collected money through fundraising, and now Hillingdon Manor School is the biggest of its kind in Europe,” she says.
West London Community College followed in 2001, The Old Vicarage respite home for adults at Uxbridge in 2004 and Baston House School in Kent in 2011, not to mention a website with 62,000 followers around the world.
Anna, 52, knows first-hand the problems faced by people with autism. Her two sons are autistic and were turned away from mainstream education. “At first I felt completely isolated and on my own,” she says. “Then I realised there were other heartbroken parents like me and that I could create something – somewhere for our children.”
After hearing about a local school that was scheduled to be demolished, Anna and her husband Sean put together a feasibility study to show how it could be converted for autistic children. They raised the cash needed to refurbish the building and, with help from an army of volunteers and generous donations, Hillingdon Manor opened its doors in Uxbridge in 1999 to 19 pupils and earned the immediate approval of the government inspectorate Ofsted.
In 2008, in order to safeguard its future, Anna took the school into partnership with Hillcrest, one of the UK’s leading providers of children’s homes, foster care and schools for children with learning difficulties, and emotional and behavioural disorders. It now provides a safe, structured education for 150 autistic children from 17 local authority areas (fees are £36,000 a year).
It was my chance to be speak up for all those parents who are unheard
Anna, from Uxbridge, west London, describes the struggle to set up Hillingdon Manor in her 2009 book Not Stupid, a top-ten bestseller on Amazon.
About this time, she set up a website, Anna Kennedy Online, as a charity dedicated to promoting the inclusion and equality of children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) throughout society. The website offers independent training, legal advice and support for children with special educational needs and adults with a disability. It is a helpline and interactive online community where parents can join discussions and share information.
“I also provide training for the NSPCC and Childline on disability bullying,” she says. “More than 60 per cent of ASD children suffer bullying in mainstream schools, so developing strategies for them and their teachers can make life measurably better.”
In April 2012, she released a fitness DVD, Step in The Right Direction, and its success led to a National Dance Day in aid of autism charities. A former dance teacher, Anna organised the first talent show of its kind, called Autism’s Got Talent, which set her on a potential collision course with TV personality Simon Cowell, owner of the Got Talent franchise. “He gave in and said we could go ahead,” says Anna, trying not to sound too triumphalist. “Eventually, after phone calls, emails and negotiations, his organisation gave me a licensing agreement.”
Her show saw children and adults with autism perform on stage to a packed audience at London’s Mermaid Theatre.
Anna, who last year won a Business Mum of the Year Award, was awarded an OBE in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to special needs education and autism. It was official recognition, handed down by the head of state, for her mumpreneurship.
And she has just been awarded Tesco Achieving Mum of the Year. The judges said of Anna: “Her singlehanded determination to help families living with autism, while also being a full-time carer to her two sons, is truly inspirational.”
“People with autism shouldn’t be hidden,” Anna says. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I want all children, including my own boys, to have the chance to make a mark on the world, just like everybody else.”
To this end, she recently took on David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. “It was my chance to be speak up for all those parents who are unheard,” she says. “I felt it was my duty to be their voice.” Anna’s no-punches-pulled interview with the Prime Minister seemed to make an impact on Mr Cameron.
“I told him that people living with autism were desperately worried at the effect public-spending cutbacks are having on the services they rely on,” she says. “I said parents are anxious, worried and angry, and some cannot see light at the end of the tunnel.
“Why are our children being penalised for having a diagnosis of autism? It would seem local authorities are trying to make their lives more difficult.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A MUMPRENEUR
4am Anna is awake with her 20-year-old son Angelo, diagnosed with autism and epilepsy
5am She combines caring for Angelo with speaking to parents abroad who have children with autism
7am Makes breakfast for the family – and the dog – while keeping an eye on her computer screen
8am Takes Angelo to college and drives to her Uxbridge office for the first appointments of the day
9am Deals with urgent phone calls, emails and other correspondence, and briefs staff on current projects
10am Drives to Baston House School in Hayes, Kent to prepare for forthcoming parents’ week events
2pm Returns to Uxbridge, stopping along the way to take mobile phone calls and check emails
3.30pm Calls in at the office and deals with outstanding business before picking up Angelo from college
6pm Family, including 23-year-old son Patrick, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, have dinner
7pm Catches up with emails and spends time with Angelo, Patrick and lawyer-husband Sean
8pm Juggles housework with more demands at the computer screen and from her two sons
12am Checks diary and prepares paperwork for the morning – Angelo, a poor sleeper, is still awake