The Usual Place blazes trail with Fair Work training café

The Usual Place is an award-winning and welcoming café in the heart of Dumfries. As well as offering delicious food in a beautifully restored church, it’s also a trail-blazing training organization for young people with additional support needs (ASN). The Usual Place is run by Inspired Community Enterprise Trust (ICET), and has been working with SOSE not just to support local young people, but also to help shape SOSE strategy, and provide an inspirational, leading-edge model for skills development in Scotland.

Work-first training for job success

The Usual Place enables young people with ASN to develop workplace, entrepreneurial and personal skills in a rigorous business environment. As ICET co-founder Heather Hall explains, experiential learning helps them to use their strengths and thrive, while challenging attitudes to people with learning disabilities.

“A great example is Morgan, who is now a trainee head chef at Powfoot Hotel and won a National Skills and Learning Award in 2020. He was told at school that the most he could expect and aspire to was supported living, because he had a learning disability and a visual impairment. He trained with us for two years, got an SVQ in Professional Cookery and successfully applied and was appointed to a job with us, became a mentor and trainer, and is now in full-time work and saving for his own home.”

Morgan is just one of many success stories from The Usual Place. Other young people have set up their own businesses, and trainees between them have won over 130 Scottish Vocational Qualifications. See Morgan’s story and other stories.

Leading on inclusion in South of Scotland

The Usual Place’s approach is based on individualized strengths-based training and putting young people’s needs first. However, Heather admits this doesn’t always make it easy to work with a large organization such as SOSE. “SOSE’s predecessor, SOSEP, was very positive about inclusion,” she explains. “But when the SOSE skills investment plan was written, we quickly realized that they’d missed a chapter.” Happily, SOSE were able to adapt and took the opportunity to pull direct sector experience into their thinking.

“We spoke to Russel Griggs, the SOSE chair, and he agreed with us, and came to meet our young people and hear their viewpoint. We were also invited to speak to the board, and provide them with some education about additional needs and the types of groups that we enable.”

The Usual Place Operations Manager Craig McEwen explains the importance of everyone learning from each other, especially with a new organization such as SOSE. “It’s really important for the voices of the young people to be heard. If the board just hears from academics and Scottish Government people, they won’t get a true picture.”

Craig is hopeful that this direct feedback loop will have benefits not just for young people in the region. “I’d say that we’re changing attitudes, very slowly. We see an opportunity to trailblaze for the south of Scotland, and for SOSE to help organisations to lead in economic inclusion throughout Scotland.”

Persistence and dialogue are key

The Usual Place team emphasise the importance of persistence for community groups and charities working with enterprise. “When we initially applied for SOSE funding, we were turned down, but didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer,” says Craig. “I think we’ve been called ‘the awkward squad’ this past couple of months! We wanted to have things explained to us. For example, is it innovative enough? What we’re doing is unique in Scotland, so we had to make sure our work in enabling an invisible workforce get into the workplace was fully understood.”

As Craig explains, it can be a challenge for the different sectors to work together, even though everyone is equally passionate about benefiting people in the South. “One of the issues is, we’ve been too successful at being a café, rather than showcasing success in delivering an employability service and an alternative college environment, so we have to change people’s perception of what we actually do.”

Heather says ICET’s ongoing dialogue with SOSE has been fruitful and led to changed perceptions as well as funding success. “Russel Griggs and business adviser Karen Jackson have been absolutely brilliant from day one,” she says, “and we’ve worked with business advisers, John Pringle and Kathy Cremin, who really do understand the challenges of delivering for social good.”

Craig adds, “We had £95,000 in funding approved, which goes towards the half a million salary invoice every year. If this were a café run as a café, we’d have five members of staff. But because it's effectively a college and we need that intense support mechanism for our young people, we have 41 members of staff, many of whom are themselves disabled, in a mix of full and part time roles.”

Individual training and long-term impact

The individualized approach has enabled the young adults to gain 130+ SVQ qualifications, with no compromise whatsoever on attainment level and quality of work. “All our students are signed up as Dumfries & Galloway College students. The teaching is done within The Usual Place, and the assessment done externally”, says Craig. “We’re very clear about that, as the assessor needs to know that these young people can actually do what they’ve been asked to do. The quality of work and quality of recall needs to be there, so that our qualifications have the quality that is relevant to employers.” Dumfries and Galloway College Chef Assessor Tony Budde has on several occasions stopped an assessment if he felt the candidate wasn’t fully prepared, and if the young person does not meet the standard required during assessment, the young person is required to sit it again.

Meanwhile, the young people are learning life skills as well as vocational skills. Some have gone on to develop their own business ideas, which takes time and dedicated enabling support, including working closely with SOSE business advisers.

Partnership working top tips

If you’re a community group or charity thinking of applying to SOSE for support, The Usual Place team have some useful advice. Craig says: “Whatever your idea is, make sure that you have your research done, and identify the needs. Our young people’s potential, skills, gifts and needs have been clear for the last 11 years since ICET was conceived, so we have that research. And then, talk to SOSE from day one. It’s not about simply fitting into their parameters, as technically, they don’t have parameters. They have huge scope to innovate but they need to understand and want to invest. So, you might need to ask, ‘why not?’, and what would need to be done differently to enable investment? It’s not about being a troublemaker – it’s about understanding what SOSE is looking for, to enable them to invest in what you’re wanting to achieve.”

The Usual Place is delighted to welcome volunteers and donations – get in touch via The Usual Place website.

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"Whatever your idea is, make sure that you have your research done, and identify the needs. And then, talk to SOSE from day one.”
Craig McEwen, Operations Manager, The Usual Place