My first couple of weeks at Good Things Foundation have been a breath of fresh air. My initial observation was just how much everyone loves to work here. Underpinning this is an ambitious drive and sense of urgency about delivering results. This is a place where things don’t just get talked about - they get done.
Having a background in broadcast journalism, I’m focused on telling the stories of real people and there is a commitment towards that from all of the team here.
This year, I worked on a grassroots initiative to achieve a 50:50 equal proportion of male and female contributors on the BBC News Channel. I look forward to taking forward the things I learned there to help us tackle the huge challenge to reduce the digital skills gap once and for all.
That challenge is driven by our dynamic Chief Executive, Helen Milner OBE. She told me her vision is ‘deep impact at scale’ - and given the progress Good Things Foundation has made in the last 5 years alone, I’ve no doubt it’ll grow in alignment with that. Helen and I spoke about the barriers to digital inclusion facing the most excluded in society and the challenges we face to support them. It means not just shouting about their struggle but creating meaningful change.
Digital inclusion - the spectrum
The charity is committed to working with government and stakeholders to create simple and practical solutions to improve digital inclusion. Whether it’s improving language proficiency, making simple financial transactions or looking for health advice, Helen explained how mastering basic digital skills unlocks a world of opportunity for people. It gives control to people who are socially excluded and already struggling with daily life.
Helen has been a part of many advisory panels and roundtables, advising on best practice and realistic solutions. She recently met a man who hadn’t voted and had no idea he could register online either. He would still regularly use social media and smartphone messaging applications. We can often assume someone is either online literate or not, with little thought to the spectrum of engagement. However, we know that using a smartphone and having access to the internet is not the same as having useful interaction to a range of online services, many of which are either not known about or can feel too remote to engage with. Sometimes a simple signposting of services can be most effective.
The Online Centres Network is a way for those crucial services to be signposted. On Monday, I visited Lynsey Golland at one of our Online Centres called Zest, in Sheffield. Zest delivers a range of integrated community, leisure, health and work support services to adults and children. We spoke frankly about the challenges the centre faces, including a desperate need for more volunteers and Digital Champions to support their IT services. Lynsey works tirelessly to support the local community and the range of issues they need help with, but she needs more help to support the good work she is doing.
Social inclusion within a community
Lynsey said there was a large group of men of all ages who came to join friendship and community groups. The one common theme I’ve heard from all of the Online Centres is that people are lonely. They often arrive lacking the support, confidence and ability to see a way out of their situation. Of course, it’s not as easy as engaging with a service and making all of their problems go away. But sometimes, Lynsey says, the support can be a ray of hope that keeps someone going.
“Now I can use the internet to book a holiday and connect with my grandson.”
Lynsey told me her members came for support with anything and everything, often without basic digital skills. They can be experiencing personal crisis, the onset of illness, redundancy or a relationship breakdown. The centre is a safe space for them to feel relaxed and absorb skills that will help them make progress.
I met a group of Pakistani women attending a sewing class, which also doubled up as a mindfulness session. It was clear the sense of community this gave them, as well as a chance to relax from the pressures of modern life. These women weren’t taking qualifications but the benefit to them was every bit as vital.
On Wednesday I visited Learn for Life Enterprise. It’s a community hub and Online Centre dedicated to caring, protecting and teaching individuals who are currently located in Sheffield. These individuals are often hard-to-reach members of the community, refugees and asylum seekers.
It’s run by Gill Rhodes and Hayley Nelson, a remarkable mum-daughter partnership who were awarded the British Empire Medal for their services to the community in the 2018 New Year’s Honours. I was instantly touched by their friendliness and the sense of family I found in the centre. Members popped in and out all week to catch up with friends, check their emails and Skype family members across the globe.
I met 21-year-old George who told me he was shocked at how quickly his IT, English and Maths skills had developed in just a few months. The functional qualifications he had gained from attending the centre had enabled him to secure a part-time job alongside his studies. He was in a much better place now, he said, but it was the people that kept him coming back.
“I got a part-time job after coming here. They’ll help you with anything they can.”
Hayley and her Mum have managed to create something that feels like home to everyone who walks through the door. Learn for Life have lots of volunteers from all walks of life. Some are students, trainee teachers, or retired teachers who would like to give back to the community. They enjoy volunteering there as it feels like home for them too. Hayley told me the centre was thriving in attendance but needs more funding to improve IT facilities and repair the building. It’s not just basic functional skills they provide; they run a number of advanced PHP classes, with strong attendance from women from ethnic minorities. Most of these women, Hayley said, had been with them for a while and had advanced through their learning pathways. A number of them had gone on to take full-time job roles in STEM subjects.
I’m excited about visiting more Online Centres over the coming months to build on the positive changes they are making in the community.
To find out more about Online Centres like Zest or Learn for Life, please contact us email@example.com or sign up to our monthly Good Things Foundation newsletter.