Gregor Scott set up Grow to Work in 2012 to provide land-based employment and training opportunitites for school leaver with autism and learning disabilities. Grow to Work is based in the central Scottish Borders, and occupy six acres of farmland at Thorynylee. Gregor was nominated as an Autism Champion by one of his colleagues.
As parents of a young man with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, we were faced with making the decision as to what provision would be most suitable when our son left school in summer 2013. Our son wishes to be a farmer, but we accept that this is not possible in the traditional sense.
Having taken our sons needs into consideration and discussed his future with him, he told us that he “wants to live at Thornylee” (our home). This killed our preferred option of sending him to a service provider in Edinburgh.
The decision to establish our own provision for Callum was not an easy one and initially our very well-meaning friends did all they could to dissuade us. The obvious fact, that no one else provided the kind of service that we believed was needed, was the over-riding factor in convincing us that we had to lead by example.
Based on our visits to existing providers of supervised employment we planned our activities, based on what we think will fit with the abilities of people with special needs/learning disability.
The simplest solution would be to establish a work programme just for our son, but this would certainly condemn him to live a life of exclusion and isolation. As our plans began to form, it was decided by my wife and I that we wanted to involve any young person with a learning disability, or any one leaving school without formal qualifications. We would have equal numbers from each group, they would work in pairs (buddy system) and it would be a real world working environment with a commitment to providing full time employment opportunities, either within the enterprise or in the private sector.
We were introduced to the Social Enterprise Chamber at an early stage and received encouragement and advice on establishing a social enterprise. In looking for a business model, I had found many charities and social enterprises aimed at providing employability and was given much encouragement and introductions to people who might be able to help us establish our enterprise. I spent a considerable time (months) sounding out others involved in this sector, before deciding that a Community Interest Company would be the right structure for our enterprise. As more people learned of our plans, we received many offers of help and from these helpers, two of the most committed volunteers agreed to become directors of the proposed company. Diane Leckie taught my son for 5 years and took early retirement last year. She brings a wealth of teaching experience, not to mention an Edinburgh address book with contacts to die for. James Macfarlane is 18 and a second year business studies student at Heriot Watt. James is practically working full time on this project.
It was James who registered the company Grow to Work CIC and set up our bank account with Co-op bank. Due to the time spent researching and consulting with those who are operating similar services, we encountered no problems with either of these tasks.
While James registered the company, I was busy taking advice and preparing a bid for funding from Firstport (Scotland Unltd). Through my contacts, I was introduced to a professor of social policy, who not only gave advice by phone but met with me twice during visits to Edinburgh. Social policy, outcomes, funding agencies, were all completely new to me and I began a very steep learning curve. Using this advice and having carried out a thorough investigation into the need for our service, the numbers involved, the social benefits and matching to the national outcomes, I prepared the Firstport bid. The bid was submitted, I was invited to interview and the case was presented to the awards panel. We were not successful, as the project would not benefit as many people as other applicants.
Despite this disappointment, we continued to develop the project and began to examine how we would recruit trainees.
We contacted four of the local secondary schools, initially to obtain school leaver statistics, but they immediately perceived the significance of what we proposed. We were invited to meetings with senior staff and now find overwhelming demand for our service, but in a way that we had not envisaged. Our plan was to recruit school leavers directly from school (why wait for 6 months unemployment to qualify?), and to offer work placements to pupils in S4. Schools have asked us to provide our services to pupils in all years, as they can identify pupils for whom classroom learning is not appropriate. So instead of providing employability training to a universe of 148 unemployed youngsters, we are looking at a potential trainee population that could run to hundreds.
Establishing a social enterprise was not difficult. The motivation to do so, was very personal. The commitment to the project, is partly personal, but is also about our desire as a family to give something back, for all the effort and enthusiasm that has been invested by so many individuals in our son’s education. And now, as we are about to take on our first trainees, it is about demonstrating the benefits that will flow from giving disadvantaged young people the best chance to lead an independent life: safe, secure and above all happy.