Norwich education charity ensures no child is left behind
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant
St Edmunds Society is a charity based in Norwich providing practical training and work experience for young people outside mainstream education. As part of the East of England Co-op's #EastTogether campaign, CEO Lorraine Bliss MBE explains why alternative provision is essential for the wellbeing of young people and the wider community.
Book learning isn’t for everyone. So why does our mainstream educational environment reward only those that demonstrate a specific type of academic ability?
In our current system, children who do not thrive within the perimeters of theory and assessment get left behind – whereas certain students may respond better to practical teaching that prepares them directly for employment, rather than pursuing further education and university.
Established in 1965, St Edmunds Society is a charity providing alternative provision via a diverse range of vocational training courses aimed primarily at 14 to 19-year-olds who may have felt challenged or out of place in a mainstream educational environment. Referrals from local schools and Children’s Services include those excluded from mainstream education – many of whom are marginalised and vulnerable children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
CEO Lorraine Bliss MBE says: “When some kids get their exam results, they think: ‘I'm a failure. I haven't got any GCSEs. What am I going to do?’ We know that they are not failures because there are huge opportunities to become employed – if they get some skills.”
The charity offers courses in construction, catering and hospitality, transport maintenance, and hair and beauty, in addition to GCSEs in English and Maths. A new course on health and social care will launch in the new academic year.
St Edmunds Society – or St Eds – works closely with Skills Training UK, a national apprenticeships training provider, to integrate vocational training with industry experience. Students are free to choose what they want to study, but mandatory work experience must be completed as part of the programme.
“Our work experience is more intensive, so students can get a feel of the working environment, which often leads to traineeships or apprenticeships,” Lorraine says. “That’s where they find their feet, gain confidence and excel.”
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St Eds delivers Construction Skills Certificate Scheme (CSCS) training and examinations to enable students to work on building sites, while the charity also has strong relationships with major employers such as Taylor Wimpey, Pentaco and Lovell.
“I can remember somebody from Persimmon Homes saying to me once: ‘We'd rather take kids from you because they've got basic training, rather than a speculative CV.’ Building companies have order books going on for 15 years, so they're going to be crying out for skilled craftsmen and craftswomen despite the pandemic.”
Lorraine sums up the difficulties posed by Covid-19: “How do you work remotely when you're running a vocational training centre? It has affected how we work and has had a huge impact financially.”
St Eds receives no direct government funding and relies entirely on donations and public support. However, funding was sourced from charitable trusts to purchase equipment to enable remote working and to keep in regular contact with students during lockdown.
The charity also received a donation from the East of England Co-op to train staff to deal with mental health issues that increasingly affect young people, and which pose significant barriers to learning.
Lorraine says that the general public can help St Eds continue to provide this essential service by volunteering with the charity or making a donation, including signing up to their Amazon Smile.
But the most important thing is to raise awareness and ensure children are not left behind.
“We've got to change people's mindsets and make them understand that every child matters,” she says. “Addressing this issue is vital because nobody else provides for them.
“If these kids aren't trained and able to gain employment, they're going to be a drain on the benefit system, on the criminal justice system, on the National Health Service, on social housing. It benefits the entire community to support these young people.”
Lorraine’s husband, Alan, is a trustee at St Edmunds Society. If there was some recognition that the one-size-fits-all education system as it currently exists is not fit for purpose, Alan says, then there would be less chance that young people would fall through the cracks.
“We're just trying to give these kids a real opportunity to earn an honest living,” Alan adds. “We need something for those who are not academically gifted. The kids we support are intelligent and they are talented, they just don’t want to learn about Richard III!”
Watch more episodes from the #EastTogether series at www.eastofengland.coop/easttogether