74%!!! That’s remarkable – ESF Community Learning Grants

I’ve been in Manchester today at a celebratory event for projects funded by the European Social Fund’s Community Learning Grants scheme. The ESF scheme has focused on improving employment opportunities in the European Union and on helping to raise standards of living. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) has been administering the North West of England’s grants programme, worth £2m, since 2011.

Over 150 local voluntary and community organisations and charities have been funded through the scheme to provide training and support for some people who are furthest from the labour market and least likely to find work.

Statistics from the project evaluation are very impressive – and all the more so as the projects have been running in some of the region’s most hard pressed communities.

Projects from Barrow to Birkenhead have supported people to develop new skills from fork lift truck driving to film making, from horticulture to hairdressing. Those who have benefited range from people over 50 years old, living on isolated housing estates to ex–offenders, homeless people and people with a learning difficulty.

158 projects have successfully engaged at least 3575 participants to date. Of the people who took part, 62% were female, 37% were people with disabilities, 21% were over 50, 38% were from an ethnic minority and 17% described themselves as lone parents.

74%%Yes. That’s 74% (based on data reported so far) from communities that are often labelled ‘hard to reach’.

98% of participants were surveyed. Of those, 86% of participants rated their programmes as ‘Excellent’ and 11% as ‘Good’.

As ever, the statistics don’t do justice to the individual stories of achievement and hope that we heard today.

  • James from Care Network told us about Kim-Marie who’s just got a job after more than 10 years out of work.
  • WEA Tutor Linda spotted one of her students on a video and explained how he’d gone from being alcohol-dependent to starting a degree in Criminology.
  • The Lorna Young Foundation supported a new social enterprise who had their produce on display. (You can visit them at: http://www.oromocoffee.org/default.asp)
  • Paul, who was made redundant a year ago and worried that his disabilities were a barrier to finding further work, is now working for his local council in Chester.

These stories are just the tip of that ‘74% iceberg’ and it’s worth remembering that the maximum grant to any individual organisation was £12,000.

The saddest aspect of the programme is that 711 voluntary and community organisations applied for the funding. Over 550 had to have their applications rejected. There’s so much more need for funding support that reaches otherwise marginalised people and has a positive impact.

This works – and now more people do so as well.

It works because of the partnerships, networks, expertise, commitment and creativity of many voluntary and community organisations who know how to make it work.

Congratulations to them all and to the WEA’s ESF team as well as partners including Locality, Community Matters and Network for Europe and the Skills Funding Agency who oversaw the ESF funding.

Now we really need to get the message out there that a comparatively small amount of funding can make a very big difference if it’s spent wisely.

Can the Work Programme do the whole job?

Allegations of major fraud and exploitation in welfare to work schemes have hit the headlines in recent months with businesses such as A4E and Working Links being investigated. Now there has been adverse publicity about stewards’ work placements at the Jubilee river pageant. Various media reports claim that some unpaid security staff had to work in appalling conditions. 

These apparent problems are set against even bigger issues about the overarching Work Programme and welfare to work schemes.

The Work Programme’s model is one of payment by results. Organisations working with unemployed people are only paid after their clients have completed a specified period in a job.  Many experienced charities and community organisations with proven track records of moving people into work are squeezed out of the process as they can’t deal with the cash-flow problems and risk. Ironically the charity Groundwork South West took the gamble of taking on a Work Programme contract but ended up making 130 of its own staff redundant (according to the Guardian, Saturday 9 June).

Worsening economic conditions in some parts of the country since the Work Programme was established mean that there aren’t enough vacancies to fill. Those with the fewest skills are competing with people who have been made redundant in ever more unstable economic circumstances.  With fewer secure jobs, the organisations contracted to support people in their progress from welfare to work have dwindling chances of being paid for their own work. Unemployed people, in turn, are more likely to be exploited and disillusioned by any work placements that don’t lead to real jobs. 

Where does this leave people who can’t find work? We have to count the human cost of poverty, depression and hopelessness and recognise the inter-generational impact as more parents are jobless. The social and economic effects will ripple further into the future if we don’t have adaptable people ready to work when the economy recovers and there are jobs to be created and filled. Meanwhile, the state will have to bear the cost of benefits and the associated strains on public spending arising from worklessness.

Decent employment is the best anti-poverty strategy and it’s time to be more imaginative about progressive education and training for unemployed people so that we can get through the recession and prepare for better economic conditions. Community learning has a role to play where people are likely to remain jobless for sustained periods. Investing in learning communities who can generate ideas and enthusiasm will improve our capacity for recovery and help us to avoid the tragic and dangerous legacy of inactivity and lost potential.

We need to focus on developing people’s motivation, resilience, adaptability, general competence and attitudes and to recognise that a narrow range of task-related skills can become obsolete as a result of rapidly changing technology. Education in functional skills, where needed, and in creative, research and analytical skills encourage people to think for themselves and to respond constructively to change. People with these attributes and an ability to work effectively with others are more likely to be flexible and able to cope with new workplace demands.

Wherever possible, we should be supporting unemployed people into current job vacancies and creating more opportunities but we could be storing up major problems unless we use complementary approaches to work ethically with people who remain jobless. Individual stories from the recent Adult Learners’ Week showed how some people who were far from employability bridged the gap through education.

Formerly unemployed Sarah Cornwall who started her own business after learning with the WEA

A recent positive Ofsted survey of the WEA’s contribution to employability confirmed that our distinctive and complementary approaches and partnerships offer different ways of working decently with unemployed people. We showed that students gain employment – or even create their own – following short, part-time courses ranging from Helping in Schools, Community Interpreting, Health and Wellbeing, Confidence and Assertiveness and even Family History – although these courses were not promoted as being work-related.  

The survey gave us food for thought as we refine our strategy as part of our wider educational programme and in line with our charitable aims. Working with people who might be left behind in the competition for jobs is a moral responsibility and an economic and social imperative.