Aiming to crack two of the public sector’s greatest challenges – homelessness and the Neet issue – is daunting enough. Doing so with a multi-agency partnership spanning the sectors of local government, charity, education and housing makes the task even more ambitious. Read more about the scheme in Banbury in my Guardian Public article today.
Enter, if you will, the parallel universe of the traditional local authority careers advisor, where nothing bears much relation to a young person’s dreams or talents.
In this spooky alternative reality, I have followed the 1985 suggestion of my school-based careers advisor, ditched my “unrealistic” dream of becoming a journalist and am now a teacher.
Mr Saba Salman, meanwhile, didn’t become a documentary filmmaker but stuck to the advice of his careers advisor and became – ta daa! – a careers advisor! And among my friends I count an abattoir worker (she wanted to be a vet but the computer said ‘no’), a prison officer (she’s actually a showbiz journalist) and a lawyer (she said she was shy but liked languages and writing – she’s now a European social policy consultant).
This parallel universe is, of course, based on events some two decades ago, but it’s incredible that so many people still recall the terrible advice they had – and it’s coloured their image of the entire profession.
My nice but singularly insipid adviser informed me that journalism was “a bit difficult” to get into and refused to organise work experience at my local paper on the grounds that I’d be turned away from such a competitive profession. Credit to her that instead of finishing me off completely by yelling “HEY LOSER! YOU’RE ONLY 13 AND YOU’VE YOUR WHOLE LIFE AHEAD OF YOU BUT – BEHOLD – I CRAP ON YOUR DREAMS!”, she comforted me with the affirmation that I was “a good all rounder” who would be suited to teaching.
Now I take my hat off to teachers; I know some inspiring ones working in challenging schools, and it was my brilliant English teacher who supported my interest in writing. But I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do – and teaching wasn’t it.
Mr Saba Salman had a similar experience. After explaining that he liked reading, writing and photography, he was inexplicably told to work in careers advice. Meanwhile my pet-friendly friend punched her likes (people, animals) into a computer programme during her advice session and was told to work in a slaughter house…and so the stories go on.
Was there a massive yet unreported national shortage of teachers, careers advisors, prison officers and abattoir staff in the mid-80s? Were well-meaning careers advisors attempting to rebalance the economy? Or was the service just plain rubbish?
I ignored the patronsing old boot who misadvised me, concluding that it was she who was difficult, not my chosen career. But how many of my peers took the advice along with an unsuitable career path after someone rode roughshod over their dreams?
The careers advice has changed since I was at school. Known as Connexions, what it does well is to target the young and vulnerable with information on careers and personal issues. But its shortfalls were documented in a report from the CfBT Educational Trust last year and Connexions offices face massive job losses as a result of public spending cuts.
So it was with interest that I noted the recent news that the government is to take careers advice responsibility away from councils and launch its first all-age careers service building on Next Step and Connexions. The all-age service launches in 2012 and aims to offer seamless and universal careers advice.
Connexions will disappear. Councils will still advise vulnerable young people, but with what funding and under what auspices is unknown- and that might impact on the disadvantaged.
However, the Department of Innovation, Business and Skills acknowledges that careers guidance is at the heart of increasing social mobility. The pledge that schools will be under a legal duty to secure independent, impartial careers guidance for students is interesting, as is the option for a kite mark for the best career guidance and a register of providers meeting the highest standards.
The new service should include a strong online presence as young people are increasingly looking to the internet for advice. The online youth support charity YouthNet, for example, runs a rich, web-based careers advice resource The Site with a valuable ‘ask the experts’ option.
And the service could help older workers. Research published today by the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) and Cranfield School of Management describes the stagnation in the careers of many over 50s. With the fixed retirement age being abolished in 2011, and the state pension age rising for both men and women to 66 in 2020, many people might look for a career change later in their life.
Of course unless the job market picks up, the recipients of this world-class careers advice won’t actually have anywhere to actually launch their careers – but let’s not quibble about that for now.
And finally, Mrs West Sussex County Council Careers Advisor c1985, it is to you I dedicate this blogpost (a form of journalism no less). Because it is with no thanks to you that I am here today. Cheers.
The story of Lion Face puts the big into big society. Seven years ago, the 20-year-old gang member from the barrios of Aragua, Venezuela, mugged a security guard from the nearby Santa Teresa rum distillery and stole his gun. When Santa Teresa’s security boss caught him a week later, Lion Face was given a daring ultimatum by the company’s wealthy owner, Alberto Vollmer.
In a move worthy of modern folklore, Vollmer said Lion Face could work for him for three months without pay, or be handed over to the police. It was a risky proposition, but a week later, Lion Face came back – accompanied by around 20 fellow gang members who also wanted to work. Vollmer agreed and Project Alcatraz, as it’s now called, was born (the name reflects the idea that people’s worst prison is themselves and the challenge is to escape from themselves).
The project aims to reduce delinquency and unemployment and involves gang members in an intensive (and mildly eccentric) three-month work-study programme that include rugby training and community service. On completion, participants choose between a formal job – in the Café Alcatraz programme, for example, they learn how coffee is produced and packaged- or further education, perhaps via the on-site housing construction workshop.
Santa Teresa, a 200-year-old family run company, is some 4,500 miles from Westminster, but given the current debate about the private sector’s role in big society – and if big society includes encouraging something other than statutory services to tackle social problems – the tale of Lion Face is a salutary one.
Since 2003, five gangs have completed the project and been disarmed. Local crime has fallen by 40% and last year Project Alcatraz won best social inclusion project at the Beyond Sport Summit to celebrate sport-led social change in London. Professor James Austin of Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative has said of the management of Santa Teresa that “its viability and profitability are dependent not only on its ability to produce a superior product, but also to generate social value for its surrounding community”.
And that’s not all, several years ago Vollmer negotiated with squatters who wanted to take over land on his sprawling estate; the result was the creation of Camino Real, a 60-acre 100-house community built by the squatters themselves and funded with government housing agency mortgages.
While most large UK businesses have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes that include employee volunteering schemes and donations to local schools or community projects, the ethos and scale of what’s going on at Santa Teresa is closer to the now extinct philanthropic traditions of Quaker companies (think Cadbury, Rowntree, Frys). Vollmer’s philosophy is quite simply that healthy communities lead to healthier profits. As Vollmer himself has said: “If you have growth and well being in the company but not in the community, then you are dead meat.”
Santa Teresa invests about 2% of its profits in social projects and attracts money from other sources including charitable donors. No mean feat given the years of political and social upheaval under President Hugo Chavez’s divisive regime that has pitted poor against rich.
It’s crude to suggest that Project Alcatraz can be replicated elsewhere; the schemes are as much a product of Venezula’s unique political, social and economic context as they are the result of the single-minded determination and social awareness of Santa Teresa’s owner. The best social businesses owe as much to their visionary and determined leaders as to their watertight business strategies and savvy investors, but the Lion Face story shows what is possible when business puts its money where its manpower is.
On a smaller scale, as discussions at a Tory conference fringe meeting today should reveal, there is some evidence that US-style Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) might help plug the gap left by public sector cuts. BIDS are defined areas within which businesses vote to invest collectively in local improvements (and therefore boost their trading environment). The public-private partnership between the local authority and business are funded by a levy on the business rate charged by the council.
Birmingham, for example, has three BIDs which collectively generate around £2m of private sector investment into city centre public areas each year. Birmingham’s BIDs certainly seem successful, winning national plaudits for their nighttime economy and the cleanliness of the city centre streets. Crime figures in the Broad Street BID area, for example, have been dented since the launch of the scheme, from 1,300 incidents in 2005-6 to 995 in 2008-9 and public satisfaction is high.
However, not all BIDs are proving entirely successful, as Edinburgh has found to its peril. Business organisations might be reluctant to participate thanks to the same economic malaise that is leading their statutory sector counterparts to consider retreating from service delivery.
And, given it’s taken five years to get 100 BIDs up and running around the country, how long it will take for the city centre programmes to make large-scale improvements (more to the point, will it be only a handful of BIDs that go beyond the realm of cleaning pavements, erecting floral displays and installing Christmas lights?). Also, as I remember from reporting about West End BIDS 15 years ago when the schemes were being chewed over by a clutch of the capital’s boroughs, there’s a worry about displacement. If improvements stop at the BID boundary isn’t there a danger of creating a two-tier city centre with a clean core and sweeping (literally, in many cases) the problems to the edge of the BID area?
As the public sector cuts back on delivery and all eyes dart desperately towards the twin panaceas of social enterprise and the voluntary sector to adopt its mantle, businesses and business-led partnerships should wake up to the vested interests they have in their local communities. Maybe that’s something to be championed by the new breed of City mayors recently proposed by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles?
The UK has enough Lion Faces. Now what we need are a few more Vollmers.
* A fringe event ‘What role can Business Improvement Districts play in the recovery?’ takes place at 5.45pm today at The Mailbox centre, organised by Birmingham CIty Centre Partnership. Speakers include Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Broad Street BID’s Gary Taylor.
Housing minister Grant Shapps has ignited a huge row this week after criticising some housing association bosses for their “morally wrong” salaries; some pay packets certainly sit uncomfortably alongside figures showing high unemployment among housing association tenants. But, asks Chloe Stothart, can plans for more social mobility schemes in the affordable housing sector really lead tenants into work?
Seaside towns can be a fun, bustling place for a summer break. But after the tourists head home, job opportunities can disappear too. Rosalyn McCrohon, who used to live in Cromer, Norfolk, thought she had little chance of finding work there after being made redundant from her job as a school administrator in October 2009. She decided to move. She choose Norwich, an hour and a half away, where she hoped the job prospects were better and where her children went to school.
It can take a long time for housing association tenants like Rosalyn to find a suitable home to move into. Existing tenants wait for transfers at the back of the queue behind new applicants who are in greater housing need. Falls in housebuilding, sales of social homes and growing waiting lists mean demand for housing is high. People who want to move may wait for a long time, in the meantime they could be living in deprived areas of high unemployment.
However, Rosalyn’s landlord, housing association Peddars Way, is a member of a national home swapping website which is intended to make it easier for tenants to move. The House Exchange scheme has 89,000 tenants registered and is run by housing association Circle Anglia, which has 61,500 homes in the east, south, Midlands and London. On House Exchange, a tenant enters their preferred area and type of home, and several matches come up. A survey of 600 users found 79% moved within six months while 8% waited between one and three years.
Rosalyn moved to Norwich in April six months after advertising her home on the site. Her children now have a much shorter journey to school and she has been offered a job editing a local magazine.
Poor mobility can not only make it harder for tenants to move for work, but it can also stop them moving to care for relatives or to escape overcrowded accommodation. A report commissioned by Circle Anglia from think tank the Human City Institute estimated poor mobility in social housing costs £542m a year. This includes the loss of free care that tenants would provide to sick and elderly relatives if they lived nearby, the increase in earnings tenants would forgo if they could not move for work and – for those who want to transfer to larger properties – the impact of overcrowding on health and educational performance.
Last month the government announced plans for a single national home-swap scheme. Its interest is closely tied to its drive to get more people off benefits and into work. Unemployed social tenants are firmly in its sights because of relatively high rates of worklessness in the sector: of the 9.1 million people who are without work, according to the 2007 government-commissioned Hills report into social housing, nearly a third live in social housing.
But can mobility schemes really reduce tenant unemployment? One look at the evidence, and it seems that Rosalyn’s story is the exception rather than the rule.
In national surveys mentioned in the Human City report, just 2% of tenants want to move for work; 26% want a larger home and 15% want to be nearer to family and friends.
A 2008 study by Sheffield Hallam University also found that few tenants believed moving home would increase their chance of finding employment. Many tenants interviewed had fairly low skills and were looking for low wage manual work, which has little job security. They did not believe there would be more secure or plentiful jobs elsewhere so there was little point in moving. They feared they might be underpaid benefits after getting a new job and might not be able to claim benefits again if they lost the job.
Social housing is not the only type of housing with an unemployment problem.
A Cabinet Office paper found 43% of working-age homeowners were unemployed and 55% were economically inactive in 2000/1 compared with 40% and 32% in social housing.
Perhaps the high rates of unemployment amongst home owners as well as social tenants suggest that there is no clear link between tenure and unemployment?
While an easy to use national mobility scheme will certainly help tenants to move to a home they like – and could help those with skills to move to get work – it is unlikely to have a big impact on unemployment or overcrowding on its own. The root causes of unemployment and overcrowding – such as the lack of appropriate skills, lack of stable jobs locally – are needed to make a real difference to those problems.
A version of this post appeared in the Society Guardian social housing pullout, Building Solutions, earlier this week.
If you want a bite-sized glimpse of social housing setting out its stall ahead of the spending review, scroll down to the end of this post to see the Society Guardian pullout that I commissioned and which is published today. It echoes many of the issues being aired at the National Housing Federation annual conference that started in Birmingham today.
By a marvellous quirk of publishing fate, it can even be read by social housing’s alleged fat cats without fear of criticism as it had to go to press well before housing minister Grant Shapps officially put them in the austerity spotlight. Even more quaintly, not only is it a Shapps-free zone, but it’s also not yet online – hence the old school PDF format I’ve resorted to here.
Click on page 1 for a description by ex-Inside Housing editor Kate Murray of how the rising demand for homes, predicted budget, reduction in housebuilding and a plethora of other regime changes has left the aﬀordable housing sector facing an unprecedented challenges.
Check p2-3 for a feature by housing specialist Chloe Stothart on how social landlords are making it easier for their tenants to find employment. There are also features by Mark Gould and Anita Pati on how associations are working in partnership on training their tenants and how other organisations have launched neighbourhood contracts to improve their areas or schemes to boost the inclusion of marginalised tenants.
The last page is worth a read, given the announcement today of the expansion in personal budgets – the scheme that allows patients more control over their care. The feature focuses on the work of landlord Look Ahead on the personalisation agenda, boosting choice for vulnerable tenants so they’re regarded as “customers” with real choice.
So even if you’re rattled by the telephone number pay cheques of social housing’s highest earners, there’s still much to be admired in the sector, not least, as I’ve stated in the pullout’s intro, its far-reaching social and economic impact.
Kicking off a regular interview slot, 18-year-old Moktar Alatas explains how he’s launching a local peer mentoring project, aspire2inspire (a2i) to encourage disaffected teens into work and training. He is driven by the experience of his brother, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a minor offence. Moktar lives in Ladbroke Grove, in the west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea which boasts some of the capital’s most affluent streets as well as pockets of deprivation. He was involved in a youth-led documentary in his area run by the Octavia Foundation, a charity set up by social landlord Octavia Housing.
My name is Moktar Alatas.
I’m a first year law student at Brunel University.
I’m trying to set up a project to inspire hope and instill confidence into disengaged young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, mainly by drawing these young people back into the world of work and education.
I started doing this a month ago, even though the idea has been around for much longer.
I want to do this because I feel that the area that I live in needs something that can realistically go about challenging the barriers that many of us deal with. As a young person myself I know how hard getting employment can be, I would say however that my brother’s experience in going to prison, has truly been the inspiration behind the project.
My aim is to transform the lives of many of the young people in my area who feel that there isn’t any hope for them. I believe that if I can give these young people financial independence, then many of the social ills that are poverty driven, such as drugs, crime, will be eliminated. The idea is to conduct ‘social surgeries’. Young a2i members go out into the community, targeting ‘hard to reach’ areas, and talking to their fellow young people with the aim of bringing them into our offices with the incentive of getting a employment/training. Next, a series of steps, including one-to-one meeting to identify and overcome any barriers that that young person may have. Finally, we work with that young person to find suitable placement.
So far in just a month we’ve managed to get over 50 people on our books, conducted numerous CV workshops, helped three people into paid internships, and helped another young homeless person into housing.
I hope to raise funding for it through the work that we do. By this I mean that rather than a charity, I want a2i to function like an actual employment agency. This, I believe will better fit into the premise of big society.
The hardest thing so far has been trying to provide the service with an imaginary budget.
The most rewarding thing will be to prevent people from going to prison, and instead into employment and training.
I’d love to hear from you if you could help me with any ideas that you have on how to go about organising, fund raising and delivering the service.
“Gob-smacking” is how Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the government’s Review on Poverty and Life Chances, referred last week to findings that, from their first day at school, children from families on the lowest incomes were already lagging behind their richer peers. Ahead of presenting evidence to the Prime Minister, Field said he would be concentrating attention on what happens during a child’s first five years that so impacts on their life-time opportunities.
But such statistics should come as no surprise, certainly not to those attending our annual conference today, Intervening Before its Too Late. Earlier this year, Ex Curricula, a report by Demos, funded by the Private Equity Foundation (PEF), found that over one in 10 five-year-olds are at severe risk of disengaging from education when they begin school. These so called ‘nursery NEETs’ (not in education, employment or training) don’t have the behavioural skills they need to learn.
Demos advocated that the focus of resource and policy for dealing with the NEET issue should be turned on its head. It looked at “identifying the earliest possible point of intervention to prevent disengagement”.
This isn’t about branding babies but about dealing with risk factors as soon as they arise.
It makes sense. Vast sums are spent on dealing with the consequences of disengagement (this generation of NEET 16-18 year olds will cost society an estimated £35 billion over their lifetime). And over the last decade, NEET numbers have remained shockingly steady at around 16-17% of 16-24 year olds.
However, although Field has said (with provisos) that “later interventions do look much less cost-effective”, I would argue that the right, evidence based charity interventions continue to stack up financially and that it’s imperative that we don’t stop at age six.
Take, for example, the social safety net that charities can provide in primary schools, charities like The Place2Be and School-Home Support which, by tackling serious emotional and family issues, remove disadvantaged children’s barriers to learning, leaving teachers to teach. They also bridge the critical journey to secondary school when, unsupported, the vulnerable can so often disappear into a black hole. As previously highlighted on The Social Issue, a review of SHS has found that for every pound spent on it, £21.14 is saved across the whole of society.
But what about engaging teenagers before they walk out of the school gate and become ever harder to reach? It’s at 14 that young people really show their propensity to become NEET and that targeted and yes, cost-effective help can turn around young lives.
Skill Force, a charity that works with 14-16 year olds is a case in point; 60% of its students who are entitled to free school meals go on to further education, compared to 6% nationally. Exclusions are reduced from a predicted 30% to less than 7%. The organisation, which has helped around 35,000 young people since it launched a decade ago, estimates that it saves the public purse some £40 million a year by reducing the number of young people likely to become NEET. That is why PEF supports its good work.
Skill Force staff, drawn mainly from the armed forces, provide outstanding role models and deliver an alternative in-school curriculum which draws together vocational qualifications, community volunteering and life skills both in the classroom and through outdoor activities. Amongst other things, students work towards the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Young Lifesavers Award, studying their alternative curriculum for a day a week for up to two years.
Karl’s just one Skill Force beneficiary: “I never used to bother with going to school on Mondays – I used to take it as a day off. School really bored me. But then Skill Force was every Monday and I saw it as a good, positive start to the week. I started to enjoy what we were learning.” Fellow student Ryan adds: “What I have achieved has surprised everyone at college because they thought that I would have been kicked out by now”.
Would just one chance, pre-six, have been enough to help Karl and Ryan? It’s impossible to tell. So while I commend Field’s consideration of the welfare of the very young, I would welcome a wider shift of emphasis to prevention rather than just early intervention if we’re to avoid the children of today becoming the NEET statistics of tomorrow.
Here’s an unforgettable question that I was once asked, ridiculous and thought-provoking in equal measure: “So tell me, what made you want to be an Asian journalist?”
Tempted to claim that my options were limited by the fact that the corner shop didn’t have any vacancies, instead I told my newspaper executive interrogator that I became an Asian journalist because being a Swedish one would have been, well, a bit tricky.
He looked confused, then chastened and the subject wasn’t mentioned again. More than a decade on, the question still resonates.
Most obviously, it reveals the preconceptions, based on differences – be that difference in health, gender, colour, class, income or age – that one person can have about another.
Secondly – and this brings me to launching this blog – the question is a reminder about what journalism and writing can do; inform, provoke debate and offer something new to the reader. Not only will The Social Issue be a platform for stories, projects and ideas that inform and spark discussion, but it should challenge preconceptions. That might be because it features a project that’s solved a seemingly insurmountable problem, or because it features someone doing something extraordinary.
To return to that initial question, I thank my parents for the fact that I became an Asian journalist. They are Asian. Therefore I am Asian. Half my career goal was met by virtue of my being born. In my bid to be an Asian journalist, I only had a 50% chance of failure.
More seriously, my parents lived in an area with good state schools. I had access to higher education and post-graduate training before the crippling student fees system came in, and I began my job hunt at the tail end of the last recession in the 1990s.
Today’s young person is looking for training and qualifications when providers are oversubscribed and seeking work in an economically hostile environment. There are 562,000 young people unemployed, according to the Office for National Statistics. And the situation can be worse if you happen to be black or from an ethnic minority. Analysis from the IPPR earlier this year shows that 48% of black 16-24-year-olds are now unemployed along with 31% of young Asian people. The rate of unemployment among white young people stands at 20%.
To compound the problem, what will become of community-based projects to raise aspirations through positive role models for black and Asian young people when funding is so squeezed?
The Black Training and Enterprise Group recently launched a small grant programme to help local voluntary and community groups working with black boys and young men across England. The REACH Programme: Community Engagement Project is laudable but small scale, offering £500 grants to local groups that can host events which encourage and inspire young black males to succeed in education and work.
There are many innovative community-based training projects out there that inspire and encourage young people in their chosen careers – but how many of them are self-sustaining enough to survive in the funding desert?
One organisation that I’m a fan of and that I’m involved with as a trainer is Poached Creative. The east London social enterprise is a writing and design company, training the young and long-term unemployed in media and communication skills.
If you know of other successful projects along these lines – better still if you’re a young person who’s benefitted from them – drop me a line. Alternatively, if you want any tips on how to be an Asian journalist, I’m your woman.