Natalie Doherty was often told she was ‘in the wrong neighbourhood’ growing up in a middle-class white area of Liverpool, but refused to be stereotyped. The Source’s new director of quality, curriculum, and innovation tells Jill Theobald how the drive, determination, and values she learned in life are now helping people into jobs and training across South Yorkshire.

“South Yorkshire appealed to me because it’s so much like Liverpool – even though we’re on different sides of the hills, people have the same mindset. I do believe that northerners have a passion and spirit that southerners just don’t have.

“The openness and the friendly nature of South Yorkshire attracted me, and I do have a lot of friends in Yorkshire. It’s all about the people – I am very people focused. If I am not comfortable with the people, I won’t be comfortable where I am.”

And Natalie Doherty certainly is comfortable in her new role as the new director of quality, curriculum, and innovation at The Source Skills Academy.

“When I came to The Source it just felt right, so normal and natural to be here,” she says. “I came for the interview and felt like I’d been here forever.”

But her background growing up in a mixed heritage family combined with her experience of working around the UK for a very varied range of sectors including education, dance and culture, and the prison service has put her on a mission to get people OUT of their comfort zones – especially those young and talented people in deprived areas.

And this drive takes us back to her roots.

“It is my goal to address widening inequalities – even more now because of how they have been increased by the pandemic.

“I was born in Liverpool 8 which was perceived as a deprived area although it did have some of the most expensive houses in the city. I’ve always had that ethos of not falling into a stereotype and believing in yourself. If there’s something you want, go for it – failure is a possibility but it’s also an opportunity to learn.”

Much of her inner strength came from her love of sport and dance – she began dance lessons aged six and believes the self-discipline and confidence she developed have shaped her life.

“My dance training gave me a can-do attitude and a thick skin, which helped me in life. To ensure you can execute a specific move with precision you need perseverance and consistency. That translated into helping me achieve my career goals.”

Natalie studied A Level history, sociology and maths and her dad wanted her to be an accountant. But she spent more time in the P.E. department and didn’t get the grades she could have aspired to.

So she studied the courses that were right for her, in P.E. and dance, and became a professional dancer – going on to work with choreographers from around the world and becoming head of dance at Hertford Regional College in North London.

Natalie believes those who don’t have that surety of direction early in life – just as she didn’t – can be given a second chance to get on track for success, given the help and support they need to access learning and qualifications.

This was particularly evident during the two years she enjoyed as head of education at a male prison in the east of England, enabling inmates to study subjects including maths, mechanics, and construction.

“A large majority of inmates are from deprived areas, and I used to sit in staff meetings and say, ‘if these guys weren’t criminals and got their heads together, they could actually run this country’. They were all business-minded with flair, creativity, and energy but they had taken the wrong path.

“What attracted me to The Source was that it was a charity and I think all education should have a charitable status. I’ve worked all over and at big institutions that claim to be doing the right thing. However, they’re often thinking about making money so they can have big buildings and high spec resources.

“I’ve also worked in the private sector which is very money-driven. Many companies might have the ethos of education for everyone – but everyone becomes a pound sign. At The Source it’s very different. Okay – it’s a business and it’s got to survive – but our learners are not numbers.

“It’s the innovation and the ideas. Sitting in a SMT meeting yesterday listening to all these plans and ways of approaching things. It’s a collective view. It’s not one person saying: ‘this is my vision’. Everybody is on board.

“I have worked in many different places and sectors, and I’ve never been in an organisation where it is so aligned. Here there is one focus, and it is the right one. Its ethos of helping people to find their forte in life is exactly in line with mine.”

And Natalie is pleased her home-grown northern spirit is equally alive and well in South Yorkshire.

“I think Sheffield and the city region is very similar to Liverpool – you have your affluent areas where everyone has got the nice jobs and big houses and cars and then you have your less wealthy areas. But the deprivation is scattered, it’s in pockets not clumped together.

“It’s all about breaking those barriers – it’s like there are imaginary walls between them and the rest of the world and so people tend to stay in those areas, where resources are lacking.

“At my interview we talked about The Source taking what we do out of this building because, while it’s accessible by transport, it’s maybe not accessible to people who fear coming out of their neighbourhoods because of the labels and stereotypes they’ve been given.

“That’s my mission – to get out into communities and meet people, rather than expect people to come to us. So that young people especially feel comfortable leaving their postcode – I know from working in north and east London how that affects people with the conflicts that goes on between postcodes.

“But once you break that preconception – that either the grass is greener, or if you go into that community you’re not going to be welcome – by entering the area and being accepted, it’s then easier to take people out of their comfort zone because they’ve now got that common link.

“For businesses, this is key because there’s a lot of talented people living in neighbourhoods that aren’t being reached. The Source’s role – together with businesses – is to work in collaboration to get into those communities to get that talent out and into jobs to break the cycle.”