International Women's Day 2021 –

The Success Series: Jan Lever MBE

In our second instalment we meet with Jan Lever MBE, founder of Jigsaw PSHE (Personal, Social, Health Education) to discuss how she took “an idea that just wouldn’t go away”, and turned it into a business which provides services to more than 5,000 schools across 38 countries.

Published

8th March 2021

Author

Nick Foxworthy

Category

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“If you really believe in this, hold your nerve” is the best advice Jan Lever MBE ever received.

Jan’s early career followed a fairly well-established trajectory – 15 years as a classroom teacher, followed by a period as a Local Authority Advisor, advising 42 schools on PSHE and mental health, before moving into a role as a Schools Improvement Advisor, supporting secondary schools who needed additional help. During this time, Jan also trained as a counsellor and psychotherapist, and while she describes her time as varied and rich, it was in this last role that she realised this was “not what I was born to do.” Her overwhelming passion for the mental health of children and how children learn was the driver behind setting up her educational consultancy business.

Jan Lever

Four variants on the Jigsaw logo

As a consultant, Jan supported schools to plan their curriculum to help teachers better manage behaviour in the classroom, which many schools were finding increasingly difficult.

“It reinforced for me that we were not doing enough to build social skills and positive mental health in children.”

Jan witnessed first-hand how emotional mental health issues were getting in the way of learning, and in turn hindering others in the classroom from learning too. The niggling feeling that she needed to do something more wouldn’t go away.

At the time, Jan’s psychotherapy business was flourishing, and she was coaching clients with serious mental health issues ranging from addiction to self-harm and eating disorders, and she was using mindfulness philosophy and practise as an effective therapeutic tool.

“I kept hearing from clients ‘If only someone had taught me this as a kid’ and that’s when I really had the motivation for sitting down and writing Jigsaw.”

Bringing together the two sides of her career was a real lightbulb moment and one she’s not looked back from.

Secondary school children sat smiling and talking around an outside table.

Launching the business was not without its risks.

“That jump from employed to self-employed was really scary. For the first year or two cash flow wasn’t great, and I was counting every penny, worrying about paying the mortgage.”

However, it was the strong belief in what she was building which made Jan more determined, and that determination has certainly paid off.  Overnight Jigsaw onboarded 100 schools, growing to 300 by the end of the first year. It now serves more than 5,000 schools throughout the UK and across 38 countries.

“It’s absolutely stunning to me that Jigsaw is working for children in so many different cultures and countries.” 

So, is Jan satisfied?

“In the beginning, I kept telling everyone ‘we’re getting there’, but then I realised there is no ‘there’. You keep rolling and expanding.”

And expansion is certainly front of mind now. “We are in the process of partnering with the right expertise to enable us to grow.

Jan is working with an accomplished Chair and recruiting an MD and new expanded team to help build the company further. This strategic move will give Jan the space to launch new products that are currently in development as well as reach more UK schools and new international markets.

“We’re in approximately 20% of UK schools at the moment, and international schools are growing by the week, so there’s a long way to go and many more children to reach.”

Of course, Covid has had an impact too with mental health rising to the top of schools’ agendas as they meet the challenges children have faced throughout lockdown. In June, Jigsaw launched a free recovery package to help bring children and young people back to school in an effective and safe way. Made available to all schools it was designed to support children and young people’s emotional needs, recognising that “children can’t successfully catch up academically unless they first resocialise back in the classroom and with friends.”

When asked about her proudest moments, Jan is humble about the email she “received out of the blue” offering her an MBE for services to education, calling it “lovely”, and instead focuses on the interactions with schools and children that she’s experienced. “What really gives me the reward is visiting the schools and the children tell me with great excitement that they love Jigsaw lessons and now they can do ‘calm me-time’." Jan recalls a time she was passing through an airport in Cyprus having delivered some training to MOD schools:

“I was in the security queue and I’d taken out my laptop, which at the time had some Jigsaw stickers on it and I heard two little voices telling their dad really excitedly ‘we do that at school; that’s Jigsaw Jo.’ It really doesn’t get better than that.”
Schoolchildren with their hands up in a classroom.

What advice does she have for people thinking of starting out? “If you really believe in it, hold your nerve. You need to build your reputation before the work starts to flow.” Jan has also built strong relationships with people who have believed in her and her business. “My wonderful graphic designer told me ‘pay me when you start selling it’.” That kind of support is invaluable and echoes the ethos of giving back and emotional wellbeing that it is at Jan – and Jigsaw’s – centre.

From “part common sense and part winging it” to being invited to the palace in recognition of her significant 40 year contribution to services for education, Jan is a true inspiration and champion of driving emotional connection and wellbeing in children and young people. And who does she hope will present her this honour? “100% HRH Prince William”, she says without hesitation.

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Author -

Nick Foxworthy

Nick Foxworthy

Senior Commercial Banker, Exeter Office

Throughout his 16 years in banking, building long-term relationships to help both businesses and individuals achieve their goals is something Nick has always been passionate about. He is a Chartered Associate of The London Institute of Banking & Finance and excited to be part of the Exeter team, where traditional values and entrepreneurial spirit certainly hold true.