Education, Training and Life Skills

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The quality of statutory educational provision in Devon varies so greatly according to location that it makes little sense to examine it in any detail here. Overall, educational outcomes at all levels are good. In common with the rest of the country, funding to schools and colleges is increasingly squeezed. Funding for Devon’s schools has however been historically low, and the outcome of the recent fairer funding formula was not as favourable as had been hoped. Anecdotally, there is less and less money for aspects of the curriculum beyond the central academic subjects, and the provision of adequate specialist support for high-needs children is a substantial challenge. Rural schools with smaller class-sizes are under increased financial pressure.

A particular issue in a large and rural county is access to post-16 educational and training opportunities. The availability of public transport can substantially limit children’s options. The fact that most employers in Devon are relatively small can mean there are fewer apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities locally (although local councils and FE college schemes provide a good number of openings).

As in other areas, training and educational opportunities for those with some kind of additional needs, tend to involve the voluntary sector. This might be through specialist courses to support people with learning difficulties, or those leaving the armed forces, to become ready for work. Or it could be through intensive, one-to-one tailored work with young people who have disengaged from education. Or it could involve volunteers working with new parents in disadvantaged areas to develop their parenting skills in order to support good language development in pre-school children.

The critical early years

Pregnancy and the first three years of a child’s life is a critical period for physical, mental and emotional development. Indicators such as language development and weight are accurate predictors of educational and health outcomes later in life; substantial inequalities in educational attainment are already present by the time a child enters school at four years old. At the extreme end of the scale, there is a growing body of research linking adverse childhood experiences with detrimental outcomes in later life such as levels of harmful drinking, association with violence, or imprisonment rates. The factors contributing to this are both environmental (nutrition, healthcare etc) and related to family circumstances.

Drivers of poor development include:

  • Poor parental physical and mental health
  • Exposure to domestic violence and substance abuse
  • Poor emotional and educational engagement at home
  • Poverty

Prevention, through early support, is clearly extremely important. Early years is one of the central strands of the government’s measurement of social mobility: language skills is a key focus for the government in this regard currently. But funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres, established in more disadvantaged areas is no longer ringfenced, which has resulted in substantial reductions in provision. In Devon, funding for the centres has reduced by more than 25% since 2010/11, and the services offered are now more targeted at specific families in need, on a referral basis.

Parent-child interaction is an intensely personal area. Voluntary organisations can be well-placed to support than government agencies, for example, through home-based interventions, or more holistic approaches. Charities and community groups may have strong relationships with more vulnerable members of the community that more formal agencies can find hard to reach. A placed-based approach, rooted in specific local knowledge, and tailored to local strengths and opportunities, can also be effective. The most effective interventions are ones that are properly integrated with other support and services, and those that engage sensitively with (in this case mostly) parents and carers, to ensure longer-term relationships.

NPC have a piece of research outlining the different aspects of child development, and how the voluntary sector can contribute positively in this area.

Home Start Teignbridge recently received a grant from DCF to provide support to a number of families whose social isolation was having an impact on their young children, a particular problem in areas with limited public transport. Volunteers work with families weekly, providing information about services or opportunities, accompanying parents to activities, or providing whatever support is required. Greater connection with the community can support pre-school children’s social development and communication skills. Some family members supported go on to become volunteers themselves, sharing their experiences and helping others build confidence.

Working with schools

Building successful relationships with schools and colleges is vital if voluntary and community organisations are to support the most vulnerable pupils achieve their potential. This can take patience, as school staff are often hard-pressed to manage their day-to-day responsibilities. Voluntary organisations need to demonstrate the difference their work can make, and how it complements action in schools. Devon Community Foundation funds a number of organisations that work closely with schools to support children who are struggling to engage productively with mainstream education. This support is highly child-centred and holistic, looking at all aspects of a child’s life to help build confidence/provide early intervention mental health support/secure stable accommodation, etc.

Early intervention in supporting literacy is known to be extremely effective in raising pupils’ confidence levels, and their achievement in all areas of the curriculum. Pupils can fall behind with their reading for a number of reasons, including family breakdown, social deprivation, and intergenerational illiteracy. Ready, Steady Read is an intensive reading recovery programme delivered by skilled practitioners with children aged between 5 and 7 whose progress in reading is below expected levels. DCF funds this programme in Tiverton, where it is coordinated by the Rotary Club. Children receive 40 sessions, of 40 minutes each, and their progress is carefully tracked, in consultation with the class teacher. The programme requires commitment from parents, which strengthens home-school relationships and has ongoing benefits beyond the end of the intervention.

Adult Learning and Skills

Learning, of course, does not just go on with children, in schools. One in six adults in England have ‘very poor’ literacy skills, meaning that they have restricted opportunities for employment, may find it difficult to manage everyday domestic admin, and can struggle to support their own children’s learning. The same can be said for basic numeracy skills. Adults experiencing difficulties with these basic skills are often reluctant to admit they are struggling, so support needs to be accessible and carefully tailored. Replicating a school classroom isn’t always the best approach as people often have had poor experiences of learning in public, and are anxious about failing again. The Read Easy scheme operates in Barnstaple, Axminster, Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter. Participants are matched with volunteers, and they decide together where and when to meet – in a coffee shop or library, or at home, and what kinds of reading material would be interesting to work with.

Adult education is not limited to academic subjects, or gaining qualifications for employment. Learning new skills has a positive impact on general wellbeing and can increase people’s social contact, as well as helping recovery from experiences such as alcoholism, or domestic abuse. DCF funds a number of organisations that take a creative approach to lifelong learning as a vehicle for rehabilitation. Touchwood Southwest, for example, teaches carpentry and DIY skills to women in the criminal justice system in Teignbridge, through its Women Build! Programme. Their experience has shown that participants not only develop new skills and build confidence, but they become more psychologically resilient as well. Doing these things collectively is also a great way of developing supportive social networks.

Green Hook Fishing: traditional skills and creative livelihoods for ex-servicemen

It is well-established that ex-service personnel can struggle in a number of practical and emotional ways to adjust to civilian life. Two groups have a particularly difficult time after they leave the services:

*Those dismissed with an administrative discharge often for very minor offences, such as falling foul of a zero-tolerance policy on drug use.

*Those with a civil criminal conviction involving a custodial sentence, which also results in immediate dismissal.

These people do not receive the standard resettlement rights and support, although they are losing their income and their home, along with their support network. They often struggle with feelings of shame, and have a particularly high risk of unemployment, mental health problems and addiction. A recent count found 25-30 ex-forces rough sleepers in Plymouth and Exeter. A Howard League for Penal Reform report showed many ex-servicemen in prison expressed high levels of regret for mistakes they’d made.

So, the need here is not in doubt, especially in a city with strong naval links such as Plymouth. A potential solution also has a strong place-based theme. Ken Bromage spent 30 years in the Navy, latterly as a chaplain. He recognised that the Plymouth area’s long tradition of boat building and sea-going could provide opportunities for those wanting to turn their post-service lives around. He has established Green Hook Fishing, an organisation dedicated to supporting ex-servicemen, especially those leaving the services under a cloud, to develop new skills and confidence, and develop sustainable civilian livelihoods. Seven years in the planning, the programme is hoping to launch in early 2019.

It works like this. Participants will work to build or fit out a small fishing vessel (those under 30 feet, powered by sail or oars, are exempt from requiring fishing licences, yet can sell their catch commercially). They will receive training either in boat building or sailmaking from expert providers, and will also be trained in how to operate the finished boat. The fishing operation will then be managed by a cooperative, which includes the participants as members. It has been calculated that one boat could provide a living wage for three people.

Traditionally, fishing boats operate on a share basis, where profits are divided, and income rises and falls according to catch and sales. As the aim here is to introduce stability and predictability to potentially chaotic lives, the cooperative model will provide participants with a regular wage, smoothing out the ebbs and flows of seasons and markets, as well as involving a chance to participate in decision making.

In order to maximise income, the cooperative will undertake various processing tasks – smoking, pickling, etc – to increase the value-added of their product, which will then be sold online directly to delicatessens etc. The hope is that in three years, six boats will be on the water, providing 18 sea-going jobs, with another 10-12 on land.

It was important to come up with an organisational model based on developing skills and livelihoods, rather than a traditional charitable structure, which is not appealing to ex-service people, and can create unhelpful dependency. In fact, the operations are segmented: the boatbuilding side of things is established as a CIO, which can apply for grants, while the fishing part will be a cooperative, with Green Hook holding the ‘golden vote’. The trustees include an ex-banker, a PR and marketing expert, a former logistics director, and a social services manager. Ken says this range of experience and expertise has been vital. The board are all practising Christians, which Ken says has informed their ethos and approach, but that evangelism plays no part in the project.

The model is designed to be scalable, but also creative and flexible, able to take advantage of opportunities that come along. Green Hook also has the rights to produce small dinghies aimed at children, for sale, and is renovating an old MoD barge. Another project is to build from scratch a yacht version of a Plymouth working boat, specifically designed for the waters of the SouthWest at the end of the nineteenth century. This project could open up new opportunities, as it will require expertise in motors and electrics.

Sustainability is built-in to this model. Boat-building and sailmaking training will be provided by specialist providers, who will train those who show an aptitude with the necessary qualifications to eventually supply Green Hook with home-grown expertise, which can also be marketed outside the organisation.

Recruitment of participants will happen very near the planned opening time. With this cohort, Ken explains, ‘flash to bang time is about a week’. It’s important to maintain momentum. Ideally, participants will be recruited more-or-less straight from prison: the probation officer at Exeter has already identified those ex-servicemen due for release when the project is due to launch. Recognising the need for a holistic approach, Green Hook has established partnerships with organisations providing housing and addiction support, has an arrangement for participants to register with a local GP, and has secured free dental care for participants. Skilled counsellors will also be on hand, and a soup-kitchen style organisation will provide a nutritious lunch daily. The working week will include time for personal development in areas such as emotional literacy and anger management.

In exchange, there are clear expectations of participants. The selection process will be a careful one, run by some experienced trustees, and aimed at ensuring applicants recognise what is involved, and are committed to moving forward with their lives. It will be a requirement of participation – part of the social contract, Ken calls it – that individuals are drug and alcohol-free.

At the time of writing, Green Hook was poised for action: a full woodwork and engineering workshop is waiting in storage, initial funding has been secured to get the project started (Devon Community Foundation and the Rank Foundation have provided much of this first-phase money), and premises are being readied. Ken admits that advice he received to get a small-scale pilot underway first is sensible. A project like this, that is unfamiliar and multifaceted, is far better demonstrated than explained to potential donors. We look forward to following Green Hook’s story into the future!


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