Little minds, bright futures

Little minds, bright futures

Business says there’s a scarcity of suitable young people to fill skills gaps. Schools are weighed down with assessments and other admin at a time when the youngsters might benefit from seeing what a real job is all about. Lindsey Dunn tells Brian Nicholls how she bridges the gap

Equipping young people to narrow the skills gap impeding our industry and commerce looks a challenge likely to intensify in 2014.

Businesses point out that many school leavers applying for jobs needing urgently to be filledstill show little realisation of what paid work is, and insufficient competence often to tackle it properly from day one. On the other hand school heads and their teaching staffs, often blamed for this, are themselves weighed down increasingly by time consuming tests, examinations and assessments deemed necessary to raise basic education standards.

Lindsey Dunn is one of a growing force working to narrow the gap. Her Skills to Shine company, active since May 2010, expects this year to put at least 1,000 younger people through summer schools, mainly in the North East, to get better understanding and motivation towards finding a suitable career. It also expects to lead 100 or so 11 to 16-year-olds at risk of exclusion out of disengagement from learning towards, instead, an apprenticeship.

Her Monkseaton, North Tyneside, company – with support from business - takes enterprise learning to schools and gives children there and in workplaces the knowledge, confidence and understanding, better equipping them to choose a suitable career.

Lindsey, a mother of two (soon to be three, to the Dunns’ delight), created her unconventional teaching model after working at 35 schools over four years for Northumberland County Council. She was an enterprise learning co-ordinator for Skill Wansbeck, a small education team advising on behalf of Go Wansbeck enterprise agency - “a fantastic project with some great outcomes for young people,” she reflects.

When the present government scrapped the agency initiated by the previous government Lindsey, 31, was advised to bide her time until a new initiative arose. But, convinced she and her colleagues had benefited both education and the children, she decided otherwise. “I didn’t see myself as a slave to the next government initiative,” she says. “Maybe I was young and naive but I thought ‘no chance.’”

During maternity leave she emailed 10 people she thought might be supportive. Replies included one from the Edge Foundation, the independent education charity raising the status of technical, practical and vocational learning. The foundation recognised what had been achieved at Wansbeck and pledged £75,000 to get Skills to Shine up and running while she established a trading side.

Visiting schools personally, she found a number now with their new financial freedoms willing to pay for projects like hers. So for two years now, Skills to Shine has run fortnight-long summer schools around the world of work for recipients of free school meals.

Last year another £270,000 came in from the National Lottery towards a four year programme. This has enabled Lindsey to employ two full time staff, and a casual corps of 27 business people, actors, teachers and youth workers to imbue young people with skills equipping them to manage a career and cope with life.

Companies such as Dicksons the Tyneside butcher and takeaway food chain, Dunelm Homes and housebuilder Frank Haslam Milan (and now Keepmoat Homes) have been supportive.

Lindsey explains how schoolchildren as young as five are made work aware. A child at five can be taken through the story of Three Little Pigs then onto a building site to see joiners at their job, materials used and where they come from, then be told how a house is built that can’t be blown down.

Says Lindsey: “Ask a joiner what he did at school and he may say he didn’t get on very well there. But maths he did learn has proved essential. He may have to use dimensions, pi... It’s part of the livelihood. Youngsters see it applied, even if they don’t like studying it in school. Making their learning real and relevant makes it inspiring too. You learn to get a job.”

Youngsters studying India perhaps will visit an Indian restaurant to learn about catering, preparing menus and pricing items. They might work alongside a chef, preparing curry to sell through their parents. Or they might try something in a recycling plant. Different introductions all the time...

Says Lindsey: “This way they’re learning about work all the time, instead of at 14 when they’re offered work experience but don’t know what they want to do or where to go. I’ve worked in some of the most deprived wards in the country with third-generation unemployed. Never mind becoming an engineer - they don’t know what an engineer is, or many other jobs either. If they don’t know what an engineer does, how can they make an informed decision?”

Last year seven schools had summer ventures. “This year we’ve already nine signed up and hope to make it 14,” she says. “The schools range throughout the North East and one is
in Birmingham, where we got known by word of mouth. I’ve now piloted a model to roll out nationally.”

One group on a literacy course had to write a 10 sentence story. They were first taken on an open-top bus tour for inspiration, then a museum visit where they were told to find their own story idea from there on and write it up. That, they were also told, was work. Later an author mentored them in unclassroom-like fashion. A printer, illustrator and cartoonist weighed in. Besides the written and illustrated word, the group also made a studio recording of their work to sharpen their listening and learning skills, and finally were tested on presentation.

Says Lindsey: “The presentations of these kids who had little confidence and, it was thought, little ability were unbelievable. One did a puppet show. Another a film drama. They learned in literacy during two weeks what might have taken a full term at school.”

On numeracy courses youngsters are briefed on how to develop and market a project, get a budget of £10 perhaps and have to set their margins and show a profit. Two lads who sold their chocolates from a pop-up shop at Blyth for six and a half hours hadn’t realised how strenuous earning a living is. “When my mother gets home now and whinges I’ll know why,” said one.

The chocolates were made following visits to John Lewis and Fenwick, and a sharing of expertise by two local artisan confectioners and chocolatiers, Gareth James at Tynemouth and Kenspeckle at Morpeth. An experienced designer had mentored, in school, on branding and marketing.

Projects are sponsored by schools or businesses, with businesses ever at the heart. The North East Chamber of Commerce, for example, is supportive. “You’d be surprised how willingly firms give time, effort, resources and people. Our feedback is that businesses want to help schools more. The gap in the middle is what we’re helping to bridge. We find out what schools do and need, then offer a project to meet everyone’s outcomes and ensure young people learn about work.”

Lindsey insists she’s the planner. “I’m not here to make money but to make it work for young people,” she tells schools. Mostly she’s well received, but getting acceptance is still a
hurdle sometimes. “They have to hit grades, levels, and are sometimes wary of diversifying,” she accepts.

“However, some heads and teachers are very forward thinking. At one school with problems some teachers didn’t want me there. I was just another ‘initiative’ to them. I split the staff room into those for and those against and said ‘fight it out’.

“They sat and argued. One teacher asked: ‘Why should a bus driver come to my classroom to tell me how to teach?’ I asked how many children there wanted to be a teacher. You need a bus driver to explain what a bus driver does and so help youngsters make an informed choice. Maybe some would want to drive a bus. We need bus drivers. The teachers came round to my way of thinking.”

The spur of rejection

Lindsey, who reports to a board quarterly in her guaranteed company, serves on a working party at Newcastle University. She hopes to amass data confirming methods like hers can raise young persons’ attainments, since no such research is available that she knows of

Businesses she has surveyed have all rated Skills to Shine summer school good or excellent; 98% of the teachers have rated the programme likewise; and all participants felt they’d developed their confidence, motivation, sense of teamwork and learning.

She’s made two bids for grants to research further. She concedes: “I don’t think we can get
this beyond just another initiative unless we can connect it with attainment and achievement levels. That’s what the Government is bothered about - a child having better maths and better literacy skills.”

However, she sees what many do: a lack of communication between the Education and Business Departments of government on this: “Michael Gove the Education Secretary wants children sitting in a classroom learning times tables and alphabets. But you also need kids for work as Vince Cable the Business Secretary acknowledges. Proving our way works could mainstream us into schools.”

Lindsey’s passionate about opportunity in education, having herself almost been rejected.

Born in Lincoln and raised in Whitley Bay from the age of two, she was found to be dyslexic.

A teacher told her parents she hadn’t the ability to study A level history as she wished since she couldn’t read enough and her reading standards weren’t what they should be.

Alternative methods of learning that exist were never suggested. “Because I didn’t fit into the box I was told I couldn’t do what I wanted. I left school at 17 and didn’t go to university until I was 21. I took several jobs meanwhile.”

She learned coping strategies  - has written her own successful application for a Lottery grant, for example – having earlier got her history degree from Northumbria University, and an MA later at University of Sunderland. While a student she worked with young people in care who had social and emotional problems, and special education needs.

“I saw them over three years struggling. The education system was failing them.” As a youth worker also during holidays, she saw people who were encouraged to do things differently could learn more easily.”

While an education officer at Tyne and Wear Museums, she found what they did for education so creative and different; experimental, hands on, practical. At that point she did her Masters, pulling together all she was seeing and learning. “Then at Wansbeck I was given three years to test out my theories as we worked for school improvements.”

Husband Shaun has an internet company and his own building firm, Endeavour Developments, which has recently completed 14 homes at North Shields and three at Monkseaton, one of which the couple have recently moved into with their son Stanley, three and a half, and Nancy, 20 months.

Lindsey now plans a drive for government tenders, more business sponsorship, and a portal to put lesson plans and business support on. She also wants to develop a certificate of enterprise and skills – not as a qualification to tick a box, but to accredit what the young are achieving.

“You know,” she adds, “so many entrepreneurs admit they didn’t do well at school, but they
are doing well at work.”