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Northumbria research supports social enterprise scale-up

15th May 2018

Research by academics from Northumbria University has contributed to significant funding being awarded to a social enterprise which supports young ex-offenders into work.

Members of Northumbria’s Department of Social Sciences have been evaluating the impact of the work carried out by The Skill Mill – a multi-award winning organisation originally set up in Newcastle and now operating across the UK and internationally.

Now The Skill Mill is one of 10 projects supporting disadvantaged children which have been chosen to receive a share of £28m Life Chances Funding, as announced by The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The Life Chances Fund is a Social Impact Bond which rewards service providers on the impact achieved and this support will allow The Skill Mill to expand its operations in other parts of England.

Originally set up in 2014 in Newcastle through a partnership between Newcastle City Council's Youth Offending Team and The Environment Agency it was quickly adopted by Leeds, Liverpool, Durham and North Yorkshire (Scarborough) as well as Tallinn in Estonia.

Having tested the approach, which provides the young people aged 16 to 18 with paid jobs for six months doing environmental maintenance work, over the past four years and in different locations, the impressive results have attracted five new Local Authorities also keen to implement it (Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham and Surrey).

Through the four-year term of the funding, 320 young ex-offenders will be employed and, with mentorship and a nationally recognised qualification, will progress into long-term employment in the wider labour market or directly with Skill Mill partners.

A unique aspect of The Skill Mill is its collaboration with private sector partners such as Northumbrian Water, Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, CEG, Balfour Beatty, Esh Group, Royal HaskoningDHV and Sirius Minerals as well as Local Environment Agency Teams and the 10 Local Authorities.

Craig Huntbatch, UK Resident Director of Royal HaskoningDHV, said: “We are delighted to hear that this funding has been made available, as a supporter of the Skill Mill since 2015 and as a member of the advisory board, we have seen first hand the difference it makes to young people’s lives.  This announcement will not only help the individuals involved but the communities from which they come. We look forward to supporting its ongoing expansion.”

The young employees, along with an experienced supervisor, undertake contracted work for public and private sector customers which requires them to learn the key skills needed in working life, such as routine, following instructions, punctuality, team building and, of course, taking pride in one’s work. As one of the young people puts it: “People once saw me as a criminal….The Skill Mill has got loads of pictures…so I can just get them out and go…look what I can do when I put my mind to it.”

The work takes place outdoors, is physically demanding, and brings the young people into contact with nature; something which many of them have previously little or no experience of. These are all important elements which make the Skill Mill appealing and successful, according to the young employees themselves, who also report improved physical and mental well-being.

Originally developed to provide flood-risk reduction services, The Skill Mill now provides a broad range of environmental maintenance and horticultural services.

The Life Chances Fund will provide support to all 10 Local Authorities and Central Government who together will commission The Skill Mill and accrue significant savings through the beneficiaries’ life course as they transition out of the criminal justice system and lead productive adult lives. Charlie Taylor, YJB Chair said: “I have been enormously impressed by the work of Skill Mill. Wherever they have worked in the country they have been able to get some of our most troubled teenagers into exciting and productive work experience programmes. The positive working habits these programmes encourage are essential in enabling children from the youth justice system to make a positive contribution to society as adults.”

David Parks, Director and founder of The Skill Mill added: “This announcement marks an important stage in our development. Helping young people who have entered the criminal justice system make a successful transition into mainstream society is in all of our interests. The research done so far has evidenced that 6% of the young people re-offend within one year compared with more than 40% of all young offenders. The Skill Mill offers this possibility through bringing together many committed stakeholders who can co-create these transformative opportunities for not only the young people but their families and communities too.”

Northumbria University has been working with The Skill Mill to evaluate the approach and track the beneficiaries’ outcomes since it began. The University will lead an international team of multi-disciplinary researchers as the Skill Mill expands to new areas to assess the impact and the critical touch-points of this innovative idea. Sarah Soppitt, Faculty Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor Learning and Teaching (Acting) said: “We have a Criminal Justice System in England that brings many young people into its fold, yet even when they are no longer offending rarely are they offered an opportunity to be seen or treated like young people. The label of an offender dominates. The Skill Mill gives these young people the opportunities that are otherwise lacking, and ultimately the chance to lead a rewarding, crime free life. Having been involved with Skill Mill since its development, I am excited to be involved with this next stage, and to see if more young people can have positive ‘life chances.”

The Skill Mill has also developed close partnerships with, for example, ARCO for Personal Protective Equipment and tools, Enterprise for vehicle hire and Apple Computers for IT. All suppliers, through their Corporate Social Responsibility commitment, provide technical advice and support as well as highly competitive rates for equipment to help maximise The Skill Mill’s impact. David Pratt, Divisional Director of Frameworks at Esh Group, said: “We’re extremely proud of the Skill Mill for their recent success regarding The Life Chances Fund. Esh Group has worked alongside the Skill Mill since 2015 and it’s been real pleasure to watch the social enterprise grow, as well as helping young ex-offenders gain vital new skills, progress their careers and gain long-term employment.”

A new partnership with Novus will provide access to formally recognised qualifications for all Skill Mill employees. Louise Higginbotham, Head of Resettlement, Partnerships and Employment says: “Novus are delighted to be able to support the Skill Mill in expanding their programme to reach more ex-offenders. For the first time, many of these young people are being provided with an opportunity to develop transferable work skills, to achieve success and realise their potential. This is the first step on their journey to lead positive, crime free lives whilst giving back to local communities. Novus looks forward to working in partnership with the Skill Mill in supporting the young people to achieve an accreditation that adds value to their work and can be used for future employment.”

If you would like to commission a Skill Mill Team to provide a service or if you are interested in being involved in helping the local teams please contact

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