Sunday’s episode of Channel 4’s Secret Millions series focused on a venture supported by RSA Catalyst. Led by Fellows, it aims to reduce reoffending by making offenders more employable: manufacturing and assembling quality furniture during the time that is often spent sitting in cells and being unemployed on release. The venture was selected by the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs Network to be part of their Spotlight initiative and it also made perfect sense to me that this was the first Catalyst-funded idea to make it onto primetime television:
The size of the problem
Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) (1) underlines the positive impact that securing a job on release can have on reoffending rates – they are lowered by more than 50% if employment is found upon release among those serving short term (less than 12 month) prison sentences. A previous MOJ survey found that 68% of prisoners said having a job was the biggest factor in helping them to stop offending (2).
While some employers such as Virgin, M&S and Greggs have taken a lead in employing offenders, many employers remain nervous, often irrespective of the nature of their crime, their skills-set and real (rather than perceived) risks. This will at some point affect the almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK and the roughly 1.25m benefit claimants and 0.5m JSA recipients who have been cautioned or convicted (3). Their difficulty in finding a job will also increase as the labour market moves online (difficult to access in prisons).
The programme brushed over the difficulty of negotiating the bureaucracy of the prison service when helping prisoners to get employability skills through work in prisons:
- As Kate Welch (one of the two RSA Fellows who co-founded the venture in the programme, Reap & Sow) explained, owing to the responsibility that a Governor has over an individual prison, expanding a social enterprise would take considerable time persuading each Governor;
- There are also problems in that the longest a working day is allowed to be in many prisons is 5 hours long. Even those hours are restricted by staff shortages and emergencies/searches. This Howard League publication discusses some of the institutional barriers in more detail;
- Selecting the right people who have the skills for the job can take time. And getting the data on how they do upon release is also not easy – as a Fellow voiced at a recent Social Entrepreneurs Network event.
Some of these barriers are reducing as government sees it as more of a priority to “Make Prisons Work.”
(Presenter:) It’s a product with a conscience, do you think that’s a selling point?”
(Furniture retailer:) “To have a strong story behind a product is always very good”
(P:) “We were looking to sell it for about £1000…”
(FR:) “I think that’s feasible”
(P:) “How would you feel about having this in your shop. Is that something you would consider?”
Turning problems into opportunities
It was genuinely encouraging to see that some key elements of the social enterprise these Fellows wanted to test appeared to be viable. The furniture retailer interviewed signalled that the £1000 price-tag for the furniture was commercially-viable. The retailer also said that the social side of the enterprise – it was helping turn around the lives of the offenders – was a selling point. This echoed with what I heard from the CEO of Blue Sky Development. They have employed more than 500 ex-offenders since 2005 and 60% of the business is funded by delivering commercial work (4), in which he said firms are keen to take part.
Not only can the “turning-around-lives” line help sell products, but it also helps reduce some of the costs of producing them. Reap & Sow made use of the RSA Fellowship’s cultural partnership with Northumbria University to get students and designers in residence at arguably the top design school in the country to do the designs (helped along by our Catalyst grant award).
One interesting dimension comes in the form of studies that show ex-offenders display more entrepreneurial traits than average. It is this kind of evidence, when combined with problems set out above that has informed the RSA’s Transitions project, which is working with a prison in Yorkshire to test a new approach. It is aiming to provide prisoners and ex-offenders with resettlement services alongside opportunities for work and skills development both in custody employing ex-offenders on site and on release, with the assumption that some people will become ‘sole traders’ but will need support on developing their business, while others will go into employment but will sometimes need additional support. (Here’s a recent post from our Chief Exec on its importance and progress.)
There have already been smaller-scale successes by focusing on self-employment: Startup has supported 230 clients into self-employment and their clients have a re-offending rate of under 5% (5). Baillie Aaron FRSA set up Venturing Out which helping offenders plan micro-enterprises in prison. She now runs Spark Inside, who provide life coaching to young offenders before and after they leave prisons. Spark Inside believes that coaching can help ex-offenders break down long-term goals into small steps; for example how to use what might at first look like a dead-end low-paid job to build up the sufficient skills and capital needed to launch a business.
The RSA as a Catalyst
Many start-ups fail and we don’t expect every project that we support through Catalyst to become a gigantic social enterprise. Reap & Sow has been put on hold because of a breakdown in the working relationship of the two Fellows who co-founded it (which is why you never heard the words “Reap & Sow” and the programme is quite unclear where the idea came from, whether it was via Acumen Trust or Katie Piper herself). But given the success of the first batch of production both for the ex-offenders and the response from retailers the Fellows are looking to make tweaks to the model and set up new vehicles to take it forward.
As well as supporting the success of individual ventures, we hope that Catalyst-funded ventures offer lessons to others trying to tackle a similar social problem. Getting the venture’s concept out to a primetime audience of at least a million will inspire others to run something similar and increase the demand for products made by ex-offenders.
There are some fascinating stories in the programme, not least the attitudes of the presenter who was herself a victim of serious crime. You’ve got 26 days to watch it and if I haven’t persuaded you, I’ll let Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
If you want to get in touch with Kate Welch, you can do so via email@example.com
RSA Transitions is doing a feasibility study to deliver a site next to HMP Everthorpe. If you are interested in finding out more see here or get in touch with Rachel O’Brien RachelO.firstname.lastname@example.org
I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes. But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.
RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School
Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012. It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.
Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.
I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:
- Work with your local schools. You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships. Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables. In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
- It is hard to involve local business. Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them. This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
- Use your RSA network of local Fellows. In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event. A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools. National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town. A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school. And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods. He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
- Only do what you feel comfortable doing. When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough. But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.
Which brings me to my own learning point. When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.
We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling. Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.
This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working. It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon. It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact. Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.
This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
What next? Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14. And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.
All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.