Reaping the rewards of Wheelbase
Mick Clifford doesn’t look much like your average headteacher. A keen biker, our meeting began with a discussion about the extensive collection of model Harleys in his office.
And while Wheelbase is technically a school, it would make more sense to describe it as a vocational workshop for young people, many of whom have been excluded from mainstream education and are at risk of getting into trouble with the law.
A fixture on the Nottingham scene since 1991, Wheelbase moved from its original home in Radford to Sneinton three years ago and has continued to expand and innovate. What makes it different from schools, youth services, further education colleges and apprenticeships is that it is all of those and more at one and the same time.
Started with a small grant with the express purpose of reducing car crime, particularly TWOC (Taking Without Consent), Wheelbase has grown into a combined educational and social project that aims to support and develop the kids most people have given up on.
Mick is passionate about the lads (and a few girls) he has worked with over the years and he doesn’t give up easily: “we need to give these kids a sense of self-worth”, he says. “A lot of the work we do is seed-planting. It’s about the kids themselves rather than just training them to work on the cars and bikes.”
Things have developed organically over time and have been very much user-led. When it appeared that some formal education would complement workshop skills, the money was found to employ a teacher and that led on to doing GCSEs. When it became obvious that anyone going on to work in the motor trade would benefit from formal vocational qualifications, those were offered as well.
With the collapse of mining, “real” apprenticeships and much of Nottingham’s traditional industry, such as Raleigh, there was (and is) a massive shortage of pathways into work for less academic young people. Many have failed at school and been completely turned off the education system. They fall easy prey to drugs and petty criminality and Wheelbase is there to give them another chance.
One great advantage of the project is that it doesn’t look like anything they’ve seen before: visitors see a workshop, not a school. This gives the opportunity for “hidden learning”, drawing the kids in so they pick up knowledge and ideas almost without realising.
Over 3,000 young people have gone through the course since 1991, with perhaps 30 on the books at any one time. Most stay for between a year and two years. Referrals come from a variety of sources: schools, Youth Offending Services, Social Workers and in a few cases, self-referral. Everyone has a detailed assessment of their needs and abilities on arrival, so their development can be tailored to them individually. Progress is continuously monitored and there is liaison with schools and Social Workers as necessary.
As with all charities, funding is a big and increasingly serious problem. While the government is talking about cutting back the public sector and giving some of its work to charities, the charities themselves are also having their funding reduced, because much of it comes from local government. The mantra of “doing more with less” too often now turns into getting nothing and doing nothing. Funding is usually short-term and failure to have a grant renewed can mean the loss of a valuable activity or even closure of the whole project, so a four-year grant in 2011 from The Big Lottery was a lifeline, if a temporary one. Every year, there is a shortfall of at least £40,000, which has to be made up through more fundraising – and that’s getting more difficult, as too many charities are competing for cash from the same sources.
Of course, the big question is “does it work?” Mick is quite sure of the answer to that one: “There’s no doubt we have touched some lives very deeply”, he says. “A lot of the lads come back to visit and tell us how much they got out of being here”. A recent survey showed that in the previous two years, an astonishing 98% of clients did not re-offend in that period; it would be difficult to imagine any other similar project claiming a better outcome.
Of course, there are inevitably a few failures. Sanctions can range from removal of privileges, to suspension and, very rarely, exclusion. But the big majority succeed, at least to some extent, going on to Further Education colleges, apprenticeships or other training – or, if not, feeling that their lives have been improved by the experience.
Mick and the trustees have plans for the further development of Wheelbase. “Staying still is not an option. A couple of years ago, we were within weeks of folding, so we have to keep moving forward”. In the near future, Wheelbase will be offering cheap, high-quality servicing and repairs for both cars and motorbikes, overseen by the professional staff and the ‘Basement Bikes’ project - operating, unsurprisingly, from the basement - will be offering cheap bike and scooter parts and training for their owners.
When I asked Mick if there was anything else he would like to add, he asked if we could put in a request for volunteers to help out at Wheelbase. This could be in a variety of different ways: in the workshop, in the classroom helping with ICT, etc. or on the board of Trustees. The important thing, he says, is not the amount of time you have available, but being consistent. A couple of hours a week one evening is fine, as long as you keep it up, because what these young people have often missed in their lives is reliability.