Kickboxer Dan’s fight to revolutionise special needs education

Dan Barfoot certainly loves a challenge. The 34-year-old regularly put himself through gruelling training regimes on his way to becoming a champion kickboxer.

And now the dad-of-four is on a mission to change the lives of children with special needs through a unique teaching method that combines education and martial arts.

Up-Grade training, which he runs with wife, Sarah, specialises in working with youngsters that have autism, anxieties, and general behavioural difficulties.

It runs tailor-made programmes that blend academic, sporting and therapeutic elements to help those for whom mainstream schools are unsuitable.

“The approach mixes martial arts training with academic work and is already enjoying positive results,” says Dan. “I’m so passionate about what can be achieved.”

Dan in training

He is certainly well qualified to talk. As well as having taught in mainstream and special schools, he also trained as a counsellor and spent a number of years in the business world.

He also has an enviable track record in martial arts. Along with a 2nd degree black belt in kickboxing, he fought in 10 full-contact bouts, and claimed the English Revolution and ICO Southern Area titles.

“Everything I’ve done has led me to this point,” he says. “I never even wanted to be a fighter as it scared the life out of me but I felt becoming braver was something that needed to be done.”

Dan with the spoils of victory

Since launching Up-Grade two years ago, he has worked with East and West Sussex county councils, as well as local families. The success enjoyed by his approach has encouraged him to expand.

As a result, Up-Grade is taking the next step. The couple bought a large house in Bexhill, which doubles as the company’s headquarters.

In addition, they have just opened up a gym in Endwell Road, which will be used by their youngsters during the day, before becoming a martial arts academy in the evenings. Click here to read our story about the gym.

And that’s not all. 

Up-Grade is also applying to become a licensed school – as opposed to just an alternative provider – which will enable it to provide even more support to those with special needs.

“We have a classroom, a music studio and a small gym in the back garden,” says Dan. “We now have the gym in town so the plan is to be able to work with eight children every day.”

The idea is that four will be at home and four at the gym during the morning – and then they’ll cross over at lunchtime via a walking bus arrangement to benefit from both environments.

Dan and Sarah – in Covid-19 masks

“It will be a unique school in a small group environment and completely therapeutic in terms of addressing all anxieties and particular needs,” he adds. 

Dan has developed an innovative approach to teaching. 

For example, instead of starting with a register of attendance, they hit pads in the gym before moving into a classroom environment on an endorphin high.

The rest of the ‘school’ day is divided between classes that have been personalised for a student’s individual needs and further sessions of physical activity.

The training area at the Endwell Road gym

“We find out what passions the children have – and then find ways to use these areas of interest to teach them English, maths and science,” explains Dan.

In this way they are learning – without even realising it. 

“They can end up doing more work in one day then they may have achieved in an entire term at a mainstream school,” says Dan. “They don’t get a chance to be bored and start acting out.”

Youngsters also benefit from having one coach/mentor at all times, which helps build trust. There is also constant reinforcement of the importance of having – and achieving – goals.

Everything about Up-Grade’s approach is focused on the children’s needs. 

“It allows us to take a closer look at the individual and find out what education means for them,” explains Dan. “It’s already working well and I’m very excited about what can be achieved over the next few years.” 

For further information give Dan a ring on: 07970 462909

Photos: Dan Barfoot collection

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