The first thing Shekinah volunteer Scott said to me after we were introduced as part of my visit to the organisation was ‘so do you want to know what I’ve done?’ (meaning his offences). And I thought, ‘no, actually, I don’t’. Having been a prolific offender Scott must have been badged by his offending for years, and actually what I was interested to hear from him is what he is doing now and his plans for the future. Scott first joined Shekinah’s ‘re:fit’ training programme, which is a healthy living course, and then went on to their nine week construction programme.
I saw this programme in action in the training workshop during my visit – you walk through a door from the quiet but friendly ‘officy’ part of the building, through a common room with people playing table football or grabbing a cup of tea, into a noisy indoor building site. I immediately noticed an atmosphere of relaxed but purposeful activity – there’s music blaring from a radio somewhere mixed with an air of calm concentration as about fifteen people got on with various construction tasks such as bricklaying (building barbeques and more complicated archwork), plastering or decorating. When Scott showed me two learners plastering a ceiling they were working hard getting the layer they were working on finished before a well-deserved break.
When he did the construction course Scott’s favourite part was the plastering, but actually what he took most from it was that he wants to teach and support others who are going through what he has experienced himself. He’s been volunteering for eight weeks, and occasionally covers for the paid tutors (many of whom are former service users themselves). Scott has a quiet manner and understated confidence, and I got the impression the other learners respected him, perhaps because he was well known to many people in Plymouth from his offending days and now he has managed to turn his life around. He’s particularly interested in working with young people. The training manager Verity told me that Scott and other volunteers and staff with offending backgrounds bring a really important quality in being able to relate to the organisation’s clients and also to offer role-models of how people can desist from crime, given the right motivation and support.
The training courses are just one of the many activities at Shekinah, which works in Plymouth, Torquay and other locations in Devon. This diversity of provision is one of their greatest strengths, because they can meet various needs a client might have at different stages of their journey – Kristy who works in the Employability Team told me that staff from different teams meet regularly so that they can share information about how clients are doing and identify who might be appropriate for which service.
The Employability Team at Shekinah was particularly impressive. It developed out of the ‘Ready for Work’ programme run by Business In The Community, who eventually asked Shekinah to take it on. Each year they work with fifteen employers and place sixty unemployed people - mainly ex-offenders - into jobs (well over their target of twenty-five a year). The key to the programme’s success seems to be a combination of intensive support to the client as well as a clear offer for employers. I was surprised to learn that the programme has not suffered in the economic downturn despite an increasingly competitive jobs market. This seems to be because employers value what they get from the programme – essentially from an employer’s perspective, Shekinah is conducting a thorough screening of potential recruits and facilitating four-week placements with the employer so that both can assess whether the job is right for them. Those clients that make it through the various stages of training and placement and take up a job are ‘tried and tested’ as committed employees. They then continue to receive support in the form of job coaching from people volunteering as part of their continuing professional development, a service which some companies pay Shekinah to offer to their staff. This follow up support is crucial to bridge the transition from benefits into work, as clients learn to budget and pay their rent, as well as managing any teething problems as they settle into their job.
When I met with Shekinah Chief Executive John Hamblin, who kindly set up the visit and meetings with his team, I heard from him the depressingly familiar story that despite their obvious success supporting so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ clients into employment, Shekinah has struggled to receive funded referrals or develop subcontracting under the Work Programme or similar initiatives.
They frequently receive referrals from big prime contractors under the Work Programme, and face the unpleasant dilemma that they will never turn away a client who could benefit from their support, but know that the prime contractor receives a payment for referral to training or employment but pays Shekinah nothing and carries out little of the work to get them into employment. Interestingly John told me that when a similar programme (a NOMS European Social Fund programme) was delivered in-house by Devon and Cornwall Probation Trust, they had a subcontracting arrangement with the Trust and a partnership agreement which worked very well.
Co-location, co-location, co-location
Another team I met at Shekinah is their co-located probation project, Shekinah Pathways Centre, a pilot which has been running for a year. In this pilot, Devon & Cornwall Probation pays for a member of Shekinah staff to work as an interventions mentor, who works with probation staff based in the Shekinah office.
They take a case load of 100 low risk offenders from probation, and have had very good results with a 40% lower reoffending rate than a control group, a 20 ‘revocations’, far higher than expected (a revocation is when the offender’s probation order is cut short by court because they are progressing so well). What seemed to make the project work well is the informal culture of the service based in the Shekinah building, and the speed of referrals to other support services. I was struck by the similarities between this project and CASS at the Magistrates Court which I visited last month. In both projects co-location, client trust and swift referral to additional support services were key to their success. The Shekinah Pathways Centre is particularly interesting in the context of the Probation Review consultation (open until this Friday 22nd June), which is looking at how and which probation services should be contracted out. It seems to be a good example of how this can work. Contact Clinks’ policy team for more information on this.
During my visit to Shekinah I was impressed by how organisation seamlessly knits together a bewildering array of different services, creating holistic support for offenders and others facing social exclusion. It was also great to see so many ex-offenders working in the organisation – about 30% of the 87 staff – which for me is critical to an effective service.
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