Growing opportunity at Edgbaston Priory Club

John and David Lawrencein Tennis

In September 2016, at the start of the academic year, the Edgbaston Priory Club began working with the Heart of Birmingham Vocational College (HBVC). HBVC is an independent specialist college for young people, generally aged 16 to 25, with special educational needs which may often include autism. Assistant Grounds Manager John Lawrence and Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence explain the journey so far.

Earlier that year, we'd been contacted by a member of staff at the college who had previously done some summer work for us, to see if there was anything we could do to start working together. The initial contact was vague in terms of the scope of what we might be able to do, but after a couple of meetings and some discussion, we agreed to try and establish regular work placements for learners from the college.

These work placements have become the bread and butter of our relationship with HBVC. First and foremost, they are mutually beneficial. Working with the college allows us to be more productive as a department; many hands make light work! However, the more profound benefits are found when looking at what the learners get out of the experience.

For many attending the placements, this is their first foray into the world of work. It's an opportunity they need to be able to continue their education; accessing the community is a fundamental element of the curriculum delivered by the team at HBVC, and this includes accessing external work placements. However, it is also an opportunity that they deserve, and have a right to.

In general terms, disabled people face disproportionately high barriers when trying to access employment in the UK, whether through deliberate discrimination, or unconscious bias. Data gathered by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and published in reports including a House of Commons Research Briefing published in April 2021 backs this up. The data shows quite clearly that disabled people are more likely to be unemployed.

Full-time staff working alongside a supported intern on Centre Court

The charity Scope estimates that there are approximately 14.1 million people in the UK living with a disability. Setting those labour market statistics, shown in the accompanying graph (overleaf), against the sheer number of disabled people in the UK, demonstrates that as a society, we need to do more to allow a huge proportion of our national population to access employment.

It's also alarming to look at data for groups within the disabled community and, given our work with HBVC, we have a particular interest in autism. There is ONS data, published in 2021, that demonstrates that only 22% of adults living with autism in the UK are accessing any kind of employment. That figure is especially alarming when you consider that there are estimated to be around 700,000 people in the UK with autism. That means there are over half-a-million people in the autistic community alone who are unable to access employment.

We've therefore seen working with HBVC as a fantastic opportunity for us to try and open our industry up to an under-represented segment of our community. Unsurprisingly, we were also optimistic that when the then Institute of Groundsmanship (now Grounds Management Association, or GMA) commissioned research into diversity in the grounds care industry, that it would lead to positive change in our industry, and more opportunities for disabled people.

Shrub beds in spring

The outcome of this research, was the publishing of a report in 2019, titled 'Groundsmanship - Sports Vital Profession.' The report did outline a number of notable findings, and we'd argue it should be applauded for a number of the issues it unearthed, including:

  • 40% of the (grounds management) workforce is over the age of 50;
  • Around 1% of grounds professionals and volunteers are non-white;
  • Only 2% of grounds professionals and volunteers are female with 1% of head grounds staff being female.
  • Additionally, the researchers conducted interviews with various figures within the industry, where a theme emerged from responses, that painted a picture of a lack of diversity within the industry.

Ultimately, the report shone a light on the lack of diversity, and importantly a need for change. The GMA have since launched several initiatives to try and address some of the issues highlighted in the report, including targeted campaigns aimed at increasing the number of young people and women entering the industry. To be clear, the GMA should be praised for identifying these issues and taking steps to address them.

Bulbs planted by HBVC learners in flower

There is, however, one huge omission from this report; disability. In a 26-page, 13,000-word report, looking at diversity, there isn't a single mention of disability.

This isn't meant to be controversial, or an opportunity to try and score points at the expense of the GMA. While the omission of disability from the report could be viewed as a bit of an own goal, the wider statistics previously referenced in this article demonstrate that the barriers to disabled employment are a wider societal issue. The issues with, or more specifically the omissions from, the GMA report are symptomatic of a wider problem in our society, they aren't the cause.

The charity Scope also estimates that of working age adults in the UK, 19% are disabled. This means that if the employed population was equally represented across the UK, around 1 in 5 people in work would have a disability. How many of us can say that for every 5 people who we know in the sports turf industry, 1 of them has a disability? Admittedly this is an un-scientific way to approach statistics, but it makes the point; disabled people are underrepresented in our industry.

Right: Sharfin Hussain, former HBVC learner who now volunteers with us, posing with the 2022 Britain in Bloom Level 5 'Outstanding' certificate presented for the partnership work between HBVC & Edgbaston Priory

If we go back to the GMA's 2019 report, they estimated that there were 37,000 people employed in the turf care sector. On those numbers, if the working population was equal representation amongst our workforce, there would be over 7,000 turf professionals with a disability. While we haven't spoken to all 37,000 people in the industry, we've a feeling that the true figure will be far, far lower.

Now at this point, we will admit, looking at workforce representation in the way we have so far, is a little bit disingenuous. It doesn't necessarily reflect real world conditions. Similarly, we could apply the same logic to statistics around females in the workplace, or minority ethnic groups, and arrive at similar, sensationalised conclusions. However, the point remains, we need to do more to encourage a more representative demographic into our industry. We need to get away from being an industry of old, white, able-bodied males. We need to do more, to make the industry attractive to everyone.

For those who have made it this far through this article, you're probably starting to ask, 'well what are you going to do about it?' That is of course, a fair response. It would be wholly unfair for us to sit and point out the flaws in our industry, and then continue to work at the status quo. Well to start with, we do have a relatively young grounds team, including one member of the team who was recruited as a teenage apprentice, and two more who joined in their twenties. In an industry where 40% of the workforce is made up of over 50's, the average age of our team is thirty-five. Additionally, we do have a female member of staff in our team. We'd argue that diversity and representation within our team is heading in the right direction!

However, we don't think it is fair for us to hide behind those arbitrary points; our team is made up of the best people who applied for the roles they are in, when they applied for their jobs. We haven't appointed a team to try and represent a wider demographic, it's just coincidence that the best people for the jobs applied for happened to mean we have some young people, and some female representation.

So, what are we actively doing?

Well, as already mentioned, we've worked with HBVC since 2016, offering opportunities to young people with learning disabilities including autism. We're passionate about creating an environment where learners from HBVC have the chance to hone and demonstrate the skills they have. This isn't something that just applies to our grounds department either, it is an ethos which has become embedded across our whole business. In recent years, we've begun offering Supported Internships within different areas of the business, initially within the grounds team, and more recently moving into areas like Housekeeping and Hospitality. This has led to paid positions for HBVC learners, with the first joining the club as a fully-fledged member of Edgbaston Priory Club staff at the end of 2021, within the hospitality team.

This success though has given us drive to go further. For a number of years now, we've been keen to establish a more formal pathway into horticulture for learners from HBVC. In fact, our first conversations began prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, though understandably, they got put on hold while the club adjusted to the 'new-normal.' Fortuitously though, during the pandemic, HBVC entered into a partnership which set the template for organisations like us to utilise too.

At the start of the 2021 academic year, HBVC welcomed its first cohort of learners on a specialist Sport and Education pathway. The programme is being delivered at a satellite site, on the grounds at Redditch United Football Club. Learners participate in a variety of sports and activities, and gain knowledge about health-related fitness and exercise. Learners also have the opportunity to take part in work placements at Redditch United Football Club, and within the local community.

As HBVC say themselves, 'Learners will gain the underpinning skills in sport and knowledge of health-related fitness.

These skills and knowledge can be taken with our learners on their lifelong journey beyond their time at HBVC. In partnership with Redditch United Football Club, HBVC will deliver a Sports and Education programme where learners work towards sport qualifications.'

From a learner perspective, the programme is a huge success. It allows learners to access education in a real world, applied and practical environment. It also allows the learners to develop skills which will allow them to achieve realistic aspirations, including employment in the sports sector, and more generally, engage in sport and exercise within the community.

Shrub border in spring

Again, readers will likely be asking questions of us at this point, such as 'what has this got to do with getting people with disabilities into grounds care and horticulture?' Well, the significance of this first partnership between HBVC and Redditch United Football Club is huge. In essence, the working relationship formed between the two organisations has set the template for establishing further satellite provisions, including with ourselves at Edgbaston Priory.

At this point, it will be of value to know that one of our team, John Lawrence, is also a governor/director at HBVC. This relationship came about because of the work we were doing in collaboration between ourselves and the college, to deliver work placements. As such, the college approached us to see if one of the team would be interested in joining the college's governance team and John stepped forward.

The significance of this is that our thinking is often now skewed to enable mutual, collective benefit. In other words, having significant insight in to how both organisations work and what the calibration of success looks like, allows us to work together to identify ways of working which meet the needs of both entities.

From the perspective of HBVC, enabling growth of the provision is a major challenge. In less than ten years, the provision has grown from a portacabin with less than ten learners, to a multisite operation based out of a main college campus which administers educational programmes to over 100 young people each year. This sort of growth indicates how successful and effective HBVC is. It is very good at delivering for its learners. However, the downside to this is it creates demand, and dealing with growth creates challenges.

The Redditch project, however, is becoming a watershed moment for the college. In the past, growing the college would likely have meant growing the main campus footprint. A good scenario, but maybe not, as it turns out, the absolute best one. Satellite provisions like Redditch have enabled the college to grow, but in smaller environments. By establishing satellites, the college never has to get, or feel, too big. More importantly though, it allows the college to diversify the portfolio of 'offer' for learners, to fit their aspirations.

In short, every learner who attends a specialist provision like HBVC has an Educational Health and Care Plan (EHCP). The EHCP is a legal document which sets out the specific educational, health and social needs of the individual. Importantly in this context though, it also identifies what their aspirations might be, and as a result has a direct impact on the nature or type of educational programme that will be most appropriate for them.

The significance of this is that HBVC can review EHCP's and establish the aspirations of all its learners. This then guides where the curriculum needs to go to meet need, and as such, indicates what sort of satellite provisions will be most appropriate. Previously, specific aspirations within EHCP's might have needed to have been met through work placements and work experience, within an overarching curriculum. What the Redditch programme has demonstrated is that by having specialist satellite provisions, learners can be signposted to the appropriate satellite pathway, based on their aspirations. In other words, if they want to get in to coaching sport, they should attend the Sport and Education satellite at Redditch.

This doesn't replace the main college campus; this will always be the main hub of the college. However, the aim now is to create a portfolio of satellite sites, or 'spokes,' off the main campus hub, to allow the college to deliver a wide array of educational pathways, which will enable learners to develop the skills they need to access employment in their chosen sector in the future.

This is where we, as Edgbaston Priory Club, come in. As we've mentioned previously, we've been looking for a number of years at how we can establish a more formal link with HBVC. We thoroughly enjoy delivering work placements and Supported Internships, and will continue to do so in the future. However, we've always felt like we could be doing more. The partnership between HBVC and Redditch has proven that we can, and importantly, shown us how.

The relationship between those two entities has set the template for how we can work with HBVC, and so from autumn 2022, we'll be welcoming the first cohort of learners from HBVC, to a horticulture pathway based at Edgbaston Priory Club.

The template, in simplistic terms, is that HBVC rents space off the business which it can use to deliver the theory elements of the curriculum, as well as space externally to deliver practical sessions. At Redditch, this is access to the football facilities, and in our case will be access to the grounds generally.

It is important to note, that while the relationship generates an income for the host business, this income is used to cover the cost of hosting the satellite provision, with surplus then re-invested back into the relationship. For example, in year one of the relationship between ourselves and HBVC, we will be purchasing resources like a polytunnel, to create additional covered space for practical sessions to take place. On top of that we'll be purchasing additional tools, consumables like seeds, compost and fertiliser, and essentials like PPE. These investments will continue throughout the working relationship, to continually improve the offering for HBVC and its learners. We plan to purchase potting sheds in future years, invest in hanging baskets and irrigation systems to broaden the scope of projects that learners can undertake, and as the provision grows, extend and further kit out the classroom provision on site.

Of course, these investments don't just benefit HBVC and the learners, they benefit us too. In a purely capital sense, the relationship allows us to expand our assets. Simplistically, we'll have, for example, a polytunnel on site which we wouldn't otherwise have had. However, this is just a simplistic view.

In order to achieve learning outcomes within the horticulture curriculum, learners will have to undertake a wide variety of horticultural activities. Looking at the polytunnel alone, this might mean growing plants from seed; as a site that buys in a considerable amount of bedding and shrub plants, this offers us the opportunity to have our planting schemes grown on site, rather than importing them. This offers a cost saving in terms of purchasing, and reduces our carbon footprint, by reducing reliance on transport. Additionally, though, in reducing cost and carbon footprint, learners from HBVC have the opportunity to undertake tasks which will enable them to develop skills and work towards qualifications.

HBVC football team

Similarly, learners will need to undertake various horticultural tasks, such as taking plant cuttings, carrying out pruning, and other maintenance work. All these jobs need doing on site; indeed, many have been being done by learners attending site on our current work placements. The difference, from later this year, is that learners undertaking those tasks will be gaining evidence for a qualification portfolio.

Additionally, the work of the HBVC learners on site will allow for a further enhancement of the horticultural value of our site. We've no doubt that the horticulture programme will produce more bedding and shrubbery than we currently utilise each year, so the overall output on site will be able to increase based on this level of production. We'll be able to start using hanging baskets around our buildings. We'll be able to install new beds and planting schemes. And importantly, all these developments will be tangible illustrations of the work that learners from HBVC have completed; they will be a visible advert and testament to the skill and knowledge that the learners will have gained and developed through the programme.

Another facet of the programme that really excites us and HBVC is opportunity to extend our links within the community. As part of the education programme HBVC offer, there is a need to give learners opportunities to access external work placements. While we could offer these within the club, the reality is that a work placement within the grounds team on site with us wouldn't be vastly different to the day-to-day study programme the learners would already be experiencing. Instead, our collective aim is to develop a network of community partners, where learners can go out regularly in groups, to complete horticultural tasks in order to achieve the work placement element of their curriculum. This might mean going to help tidy up the gardens at a local church, freshening up the borders at a hospice, or helping to green up a community garden or space. This will allow the learners to gain valuable work experience, but also enable HBVC, and ourselves, to extend the reach we have in the community.

Bird boxes built with HBVC learners, being positioned in trees

This all sounds fantastic, but the benefits go further. This is an opportunity for us to grow a workforce too. Admittedly, as a business, we won't be able to employ everyone who comes through the horticulture delivered by HBVC; we might not have any vacancies at all. However, as the host site, we have the opportunity to help shape the curriculum that the college delivers. Where there are specific skills, knowledge, and abilities that we feel learners would need to be employable within our business, we can communicate this to HBVC, and they can ensure they are worked into the curriculum. This means when we do have vacancies, we will have a conveyor belt of young people, ready and trained, to fit in to our place of work. To be clear, it also means that the curriculum won't necessarily just look at the 'gardening' aspect of horticulture. There will also be scope to include sports turf within the programme too.

However, we also have a unique opportunity to help young people graduating from the horticulture pathway. In year one, the programme will launch with one cohort of between 10 and 14 learners, growing to two cohorts in year two, and three cohorts in year three. Based on a 3-year programme, we should have 10-14 'graduates' coming through each year, and it is our aim to assist as many of these graduates as possible to find employment. This might mean we'll be leaning on some of our colleagues within the industry for support!

This then is the point of the article, where we circle back to our original point; diversity in the industry. Bodies like the GMA have noted a lack of diversity in our industry, and whilst they might have overlooked this particular group which is under-represented, the point is that, as an industry, we need to get better at diversity. Projects like this are, in our view, a start. They are just a start though.

If we're successful, and hit a 100% rate of learners going on to employment after passing through programme HBVC will be delivering on our site, it's still just a drop in the ocean. Remember, for an industry of 37,000 people to have true disability representation, we'd need to attract around 7,000 people with disabilities into the industry. At fourteen a year, we'd have to wait another 500 years to reach that target! This project can't just be the start then, it needs to be a call to arms.

As an industry, it means we need to move away from looking at the barriers that perceptions of disability create, and look at the opportunities that disability offers. Nine years ago, Deloitte published a report in diversity in the workplace, titled 'Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance.' That report found that 'inclusive teams performed better than their peer groups by 80%. Employers also found that their employees with disabilities were hardworking. Individual productivity and overall productivity increases in companies who provide accommodations for their employees.'

In other words, businesses that don't embrace inclusivity, that don't make themselves accessible, and that aren't diverse, do not perform as well, and are less productive - it makes business sense to be inclusive!

Left: Ian White, who joined our hospitality team as a Supported Intern from HBVC, and is now an employed member of club staff

We've always been vocal that autism doesn't need to be a disability; in fact, if managed well, it's an advantage. To borrow a stereotype, jobs that require extreme concentration are challenging for those of us who don't have autism. Our minds can wander, we lose focus, and the quality of the job suffers as a result. Somebody with autism might actually be able to concentrate for extended periods of time far more easily.

Take weeding as an example. You could send the best member of your team out to weed an ornamental bed. The chances are they'll get bored very quickly, think it's a mundane job, start rushing, and miss bits as a result. Someone with autism, with an interest in horticulture, may well be able to focus much more effectively. Their autism may well be an advantage because that level of focus leads to perfection; it means they do a better job!

Disability is only a disadvantage if we as managers frame it as such! As managers, we direct our staffing resources, in general, to ensure people are working to their strengths. This is no different when managing people with disabilities. They have strengths and weaknesses just like anybody else. If we look beyond the initial anxiety that we feel, and just look at the person, we can build very effective, inclusive teams, that more accurately represent the demographic of our society.

As a conclusion to this, hopefully those who have read this far are now wondering what you can do. Well, in the context of special education needs, it's quite easy. Contact local provisions; enquire about offering work placements; and start a relationship. The hardest part is taking the first step; from there it gets easier and easier.

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