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June O'Sullivan, LEYF CEO

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Celebrating Social Enterprise and scaling up

There has been so much for me to write about this week, it has been hard to choose! But as all blog guides say stick to one or two points, my views on the launch of the two year funding will have to wait for next week (sorry). In the meantime…

Global Enterprise Week kicked off with a youth-led event at the Westminster hub where we celebrated young entrepreneurs. I felt somewhat embarrassed to be on a panel of oldies, as most of the entrepreneurs were the same age as my children. I did however get an invitation to join a Chamber of Commerce, although could not be sure whether this was a compliment or reminder that I would never again be ‘down with the youth’!

On Tuesday I spoke at Understanding Social Enterprise in the very Christmassy Charing Cross Hotel; quite the Edwardian oasis in the busy forecourt of Charing Cross station. A great event, with so many people keen to change their business model to a social enterprise. It worries me though, just how many conversions and spin outs there are with only one customer. Social enterprises are businesses first and foremost and they need to know how they will survive in the market. Even more importantly, a social enterprise needs to be the best in the business, since any business operating from a social value is more open to criticism.

My constant advice is that you should:

  • know your business
  • know how it will make you a profit
  • be able to explain your social value
  • remember people choose you because you offer the highest standard in whatever sector you operate

Personally, I believe in social enterprises because the business is in itself the very means of reducing or dealing with a social problem.

The true purpose of business is to add value and make a difference – not just by providing useful services but also by adding value to the lives of employees, adding value to the life of the community, and adding value for the sake of future generations by treading as lightly as possible on the planet.”

Sinclair (2006)

Thursday was of course Social Enterprise Day when each year we give our Margaret Horn Lecture in celebration of a new and socially enterprising idea or issue relevant to Early Years.  I introduced this now annual event in 2006 to celebrate our first paid Director who gave 40 years of her life creating something special. As a pupil of Octavia Hill she learned that you could be a charity and still charge people, whilst being enterprising in your responses to local social and economic needs. This year I felt privileged to give the lecture, and better still as it was hosted by the RSA and chaired by Matthew Taylor.

June speaking at this year's Margaret Horn Lecture at the RSA

June speaking at this year's Margaret Horn Lecture at the RSA

With the title ‘Child Poverty: why social franchising is a giant step in the right direction‘ this year’s lecture told the LEYF story, with a specific focus on the past 18 months.  During this time, we examined our model to see how effective it might be in helping many more children achieve their potential and then take on the challenges of a fast changing world. In particular, we took a close look at our actual delivery model to check if we had consistently woven all our good practice into an outstanding curriculum and organizational set of practices, knowledge and attitudes.  Working with the Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research at Middlesex University (supporting their work with Third Sector Research Centre at Birmingham University), we explored a number of approaches to growing the business; including a great deal of time looking at social franchising. As a key part of this project, we also spent a year measuring our Social Return on Investment.

We concluded that we have an almost moral obligation to scale up, with social franchising of the LEYF community nursery model a possible means of reducing child poverty whilst also adding more value by creating local social entrepreneurs.

Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere.  The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.”

President Bill Clinton

The event itself appeared to be well-received, and I hope it leads to us doing more research with the RSA.  I had been very nervous about being interviewed by Matthew Taylor, who often flexes his formidable intellect on the Moral Maze.  In a telephone call prior to the event Matthew reassured me that he is paid to be cantankerous on the radio programme, so far less likely to be the butt of his intellectual sophistication. Just in case, I went to bed reading Bertrand Russell. (Not quite TOWIE!)

On the very morning of the event, I was reminded how life is full of serendipitous moments, as Karen Buck (now Shadow Minister with responsibilities for Apprentices) came to meet our fantastic LEYF apprentices. Explaining that I had to leave to go to the RSA, she told me that she and Matthew Taylor were old friends.  I immediately relaxed.

We had invited Karen Buck to celebrate Social Enterprise Day with our apprentices and to hear their views about the LEYF Step into Learning induction programme, which we think is essential to a successful apprenticeship.  They were very pleased she was visiting; to such a degree that Wahid had a tie and Pedro a suit – and boy did they look smart!

Like any good politician, Karen asked questions that drew ideas and answers from them till they warmed up enough to gain in confidence. They talked about their experiences of work and learning, and the confidence that grew from both. It was best summed up in the Sun newspaper article last week.  Interviewing one of our apprentices, Alex Appleby based in Eastbury Children’s Centre Nursery in Dagenham, it headlined with “It’s a Neet idea”, a much better way of describing the many young people for whom school is a fairly unsuccessful experience.

The reason why we invest so much in our apprentices is quite simple: we consider youth unemployment the second entry point into poverty, and so having an apprenticeship programme is a critical aspect of the LEYF model (even though it is often a loss maker). For a young person, being out of education, employment or training can have major ramifications, including long-term reductions in wages and increased chances of unemployment later in life – not to mention social or psychological problems as a result of sustained unemployment.

The systems in place to support younger apprentices, especially those who have limited educational success, are woefully funded. It would not take too much more money; perhaps a more creative use of the unemployment benefit – currently being wasted keeping people out of work – might be worth considering. The number of young Neets is growing, so we need to do something positive and concrete. In London Neet rates are very high, with levels greater than 20% persisting in Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Westminster.

I believe we have a duty both as adults and employers. It’s great to see a growth in the number of apprentices, but to gain even more success we need to tweak the system. According to our own apprentices, we need better advertising using media that engages young people, together with face to face support and advice. Elsewhere, Mine Conkbayir who runs our programme wants greater incentives and reassurance for employers to ‘take a chance’ with an apprentice. This in effect means funding for pre apprenticeship modules (we call ours Step into Learning) with Key Skills woven directly into a well organized and logical programme.  Mine is also keen on much greater links with schools, so 16 year olds can step into an apprenticeship as soon as they graduate. We are nearly there: just a few more steps and we could have the best apprenticeships in Europe – and finally move away from the folly of believing everyone needs a degree to do their job – a folly which sees London with the highest level of unemployed graduates in the country (unemployed and laden with debt; those poor wretches).

To close Global Entrepreneurship Week in style, we took a stall on Saturday morning at the London Councils Summit 2011 in the Guildhall; a beautiful setting in the quiet of the City of London. (Bit tricky though, with the usual levels of engineering work going on across the tube network. I can only hope this will be improved before the Olympics.)

The reason we took a table at this event was to meet as many local councillors as possible and persuade them to have a conversation with us about the benefit of having LEYF work with them. I was also keen to say hello to local councillors from the five boroughs where we already have a presence.  Sadly these were in short supply – except for one councilor from Barking and Dagenham who appeared most bemused by me for some reason!

The main speech given by Ed Davey MP Minister for Employment was a bit lack lustre. Still, at least it did provoke a fair amount of energy from the floor about apprentices, when I was both heartened and disappointed to hear over and over about youth unemployment in London and the issues of giving apprentices some support at the early stages of their programme.  Ed Davey suggested alarm clocks and train tickets, all of which we do at LEYF – and pay for!  Soft skills were also a common theme and their importance born out by Vic Grimes of the National Apprenticeship Service. Frankly, I could have put Mine on the stage and she would have given them plenty of practical ideas to support apprentices!

Elsewhere, councillors raised the issue of graduates unable to get jobs. Given that many of them lack experience, maybe the re-introduction of a programme like Future Jobs Fund would be a good way of paying employers to give graduates six months in a work environment. This in turn may lead to a job, but if not would give them real experience to boost their confidence and skills base and so make them more employable. That said, there will still need to be jobs out there; at least this could be a bridge while they fix the Eurozone and squeeze a bit of extra cash out of the bankers.