Overcoming obstacles to unleash new talent


Policy: The ground-breaking Ambassador project of Nacro provides a second chance for vulnerable young people who find themselves excluded from traditional education and training, equipping them with the skills to enter the world of work. Mark Lane reports

There is far too much wasted talent in the North East of England – and, indeed, beyond. Young people from deprived areas, people with learning and social difficulties who somehow find themselves missing the boat when it comes to the world of work. Such people, given a chance, invariably have a huge amount to offer, but how many businesses are prepared to take a punt and give them that chance? Often such people are nowhere near ready for the world of work, so reticence on the side of businesses is understandable in many cases. That’s why the work of the Ambassador project, developed in the North East and operated by national social justice charity, Nacro, is so important.

Nacro’s ground-breaking Ambassador project, which has this year been chosen as best practice across Europe by the Learning & Work Institute, is about supporting and inspiring young people (14-18 years olds) from deprived areas with learning and social difficulties.

Such people are some of the most vulnerable in our society and often get left behind and find themselves excluded from education, training and employment. They require support with engagement and learning to give them the best opportunity to have a future beyond their current environment.

The project works with schools, colleges, local authorities, universities, government organisations and businesses in the North East to develop a pathway so these young people can get a chance of an education and learn new skills.

The Ambassador project was developed by Chris Stevenson and Isobel Plastow on behalf of Nacro, from its base at Benfield Business Park in Newcastle. In many ways, Chris is the ideal person to lead such an initiative as he has huge empathy with the young people involved.

Chris is dyslexic and, now in his 50s, was at school at a time when such issues were not recognised in the education system. This held him back educationally, although it didn’t prevent determined Chris from having an outstanding career in the motor industry, working in senior roles for Ford, Mercedes Benz, Castrol oil and Audi, in the UK and Southern China.

Aged 50, however, he decided he wanted to give something back. “I decided to leave the motor industry and retrain as a vocational tutor and give back my knowledge, experience and skill set to young people,” he says. “Growing up with dyslexia, I was labelled as someone who would not achieve. I worked hard to overcome many obstacles and achieve so much in the motor industry. Young people should not have to go through what I had to.”

He joined Newcastle Nacro, which recently achieved ‘good’ Ofsted results, as a motor vehicle tutor and, in his own words, “realised nothing had changed…the disadvantaged were even more disadvantaged”.

This insight provided the motivation to develop the Ambassador programme. Explaining, he says: “Myself and Isobel Plastow – who was volunteering at Newcastle Nacro from Newcastle University – sat down and we developed the Ambassador project to try and level the playing field and inspire a pathway for young disadvantaged people with learning and social needs to have a chance of a better future. The idea was to bring together the business community, schools, local authorities, local communities and other support organisations.

“It has taken lot of hard work over three years to get it to where it is
now and it works hand in hand with the fantastic vocational courses we teach. It would not have been possible without amazing dedicated people, Isobel Plastow (co-founder of the AP), Sarah Brown (Newcastle Nacro centre manager) and the amazing team at Newcastle Nacro.”

Chris also highlights the contribution of James Ramsbotham, North East England Chamber of Commerce chief executive, who has helped with business introductions, Rathbone Brothers’ Nick Swales and many other organisations and individuals which have got involved with the project. “It has been a massive team effort,” adds Chris.

Critical to the success of the Ambassador project has been buy-in from the local business community. Companies which have worked with the project include Esh Construction Group, Stagecoach, Go North East, Northumbria University, Lookers Plc – and many more.

The Ambassador project falls under the umbrella of pre-apprenticeship programmes offered by Nacro. The organisation’s pre-apprenticeship facilities include motor vehicle and construction workshops and animal care (partnering with Ouseburn Farm). At its heart, these programmes are about empowering young people with skills who might ordinarily – for want of a better phrase – have found themselves on the scrap heap.

Talking with great common sense and eloquence on this vital issue is Sarah Brown, Newcastle senior tutor and safeguarding officer with Nacro.

Discussing the issues at play, she says: “With the issue of school exclusions in the national headlines, what are the barriers that exist for young people entering the workforce, especially those who have not adapted/struggled with mainstream education?

“Society recognises that the conventional academic route is not suitable for all students however schools still don’t fully embrace alternative education or access appropriate support. Many local authorities design their alternative provision around pupil referral units and do not look beyond this.

After that, and beyond a certain age, they will fall off the radar – unlikely to be given another chance after such early setbacks.

And yet, it needn’t be this way. Investment in the short-term can pay great dividends in the long-term, for the young people involved as well as society at large.

Adds Sarah: “Should this group of people be a social and economic priority, and why? Many students who Nacro work with come from backgrounds where many of their peers have also not had a positive education or employment experience, so often the idea that education and employment is not the best route for success is reaffirmed.

“Nacro works tirelessly to change this mind set and help students set a path which is bespoke to them but this takes commitment from the team and organisations such as Nacro.”

So what is in this for businesses who get involved? This is actually a key question. While some might choose to work with such people for reasons of altruism, the fact is that most organisations need to see some kind of return on their investment in people.

Adds Sarah: “This is not all about companies showing good CSR, it is also about addressing business needs. The Ambassador programme, for instance, was created to expose our students
to the work environment and incidentally it has provided companies with a small opportunity to uphold their corporate social responsibility which is an avenue of growth for Newcastle.

“However, and most importantly, we have made headway to change the opinions of senior management of what constitutes a ‘good employee’. This is a significant development for opening doors and creating more opportunity than ever before for Nacro’s students to have the same access and chances as everyone else. The Ambassador scheme was set up to help our learners but has actually changed the mind-set of our community!”

She adds: “Students are then in a situation where they are mixed with other students who have often been disadvantaged by the current education system and behaviour is then perpetuated. This means students leave compulsory education with no qualifications or, more importantly, no relevant experience in any career pathway. They are then up against students who have both.”

The outcome of such a scenario is inevitable. Disadvantaged students struggle to cope, become disillusioned and drop out.

This is actually no exaggeration. As the quotes from organisations involved show, there is huge buy-in from local businesses to the Ambassador programme, as well as the other work streams of Nacro. It is easy to envisage that this invaluable work will grow in reach and influence in reach in the region moving forwards.

Concludes Sarah: “As we want to strengthen relationships with our community we want to expand our portfolio of businesses who support us and can offer long-term placements. We also want to increase our vocational offer but support other local charities and education providers as well as bringing the provision to the doorstep of the people who need it.

“Nacro has remained committed to our core values for the last 50 years and we are now enhancing this by bringing our communities together to tackle local issues and change the mind set of businesses and people to ensure success for generations to come.”

Business opinion on Nacro’s Ambassador project

“Esh are supporters of Nacro’s Ambassador project through arranging inspiring workplace visits, giving young people a glimpse of what it is like to work in the construction industry. Visits like these are important for creating a link between learning in a classroom setting and supporting young people to become more employable.”

Victoria McCormick, social value coordinator, Esh Group

“Go North East are firm believers of apprenticeships and the Ambassador project is helping the younger generation, who may not have realised the opportunities available, actually bridge the gap and get in to work. The candidates on the project that we have met so far have been really engaging and enthusiastic about what we have to offer and it is great to see them thrive and succeed via the Ambassador project.”

John Booth, assistant recruitment and training manager, Go North East

“The Nacro Ambassador Programme in Newcastle is a fantastic and inclusive opportunity for young people in the region to develop an excellent range of skills before pursuing their chosen career paths. We hope that by becoming part of this young people and show that there are opportunities for them within our industry, and that there are many paths to a successful career.”

Steve Walker, managing director, Stagecoach North East

“Being part of initiatives like the Ambassador project is extremely important to Go North East because it gives us the chance to inspire young people and show that there are opportunities for them within our industry, and that there are many paths to a successful career.”

Keith Robertson, recruitment and training manager, Go North East