Team graduate Stafford Prince’s Trust programme despite global pandemic

A team of eight young people have successfully graduated a Prince’s Trust programme with the help of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue – despite the global Coronavirus pandemic.

The group – aged 16 to 25 – started this year’s unique programme on 7 September 2020 graduating on Friday (27 November).

Seven completed the course with one gaining employment partway through.

We caught up with Programme Leader, Alec Voss to discuss how they managed to ensure the group got the most out of their experience.

What is the Prince’s Trust and what is the role of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue service?

The Prince’s Trust was set up by Prince Charles as a personal development opportunity for young adults aged 16-25. The programme is designed to bolster confidence and reduce anxiety. It includes educational elements, team and employability based skills, and lasts for 12 weeks.

The framework takes young people through a journey where they then can reach a positive outcome that suits them the best. It’s a really good experience for them and they get a qualification (Level 2 certificate in Employment, Work and Community Skills) so it’s more than just memories.

It’s really dynamic and there’s not really much out there like this and it’s free. The young people only have to be between 16 and 25 and not in employment, education or training. We’ve come to an end of our first pandemic programme and it’s been very, very interesting.

The fire service’s involved in the form of a partnership and it’s mutually beneficial. We benefit from working with young people in the community and it really helps gain a vital insight into helping with our job as a service.

What sort of activities would they be undertaking traditionally?

In peacetime, they would do things like teambuilding, meet firefighters and other hands on work which helps build their self-esteem. We would then normally go on a residential and stay away for three nights and do a lot of outdoor activities and that really helps bring the social element through on that. We truly value that as leaders.

They’d also do things like fundraisers and community projects - such as renovating a nursery or supporting a community cause. They’d then take on work experience before coming back and we get them to do employability stuff – writing CVs, mock interviews, cover letters, references and job applications. Then the remaining time is based around a team challenge where they use the skills they’ve learnt to plan and execute something within the community. We’d then finish the programme with them giving a presentation on their time with us.

We’ll also support them for the following six months to check they’re doing ok and obviously be references for them – before recruiting the next group.

What’s happened this year then?

We’re only a small team and there was a lot of discussion around how we could possibly make it work. We put our heads together and straight away there were discussions around the workspace. The group come from all different walks of life and it’s a real team programme so they’re meant to get stuck in. Normally, after a while they’ll become friends and they’ll be sat together on a couch or playing a game in the corner but we obviously knew this couldn’t happen this year.

The facility here is big enough but at the time we were unsure as to how we could fit them in. How could we move past each other without endangering anyone?

We started to look at it from a virtual point of view and we knew that we could do some elements over things like Zoom etc. but we soon realised that wouldn’t give our students the team bonding and social skills that this course normally provides –especially when they can just turn their camera off and not really be paying attention. It’s a very different environment.

So we measured up the room and, in conjunction with Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service, we taped out the flooring. We gutted the entire room as well - sofas, beanbags, computers tables etc. were all moved out.

We worked out the maximum occupancy was 12 – including myself and my colleague – so we then knew we could only take 10 students, a third less than what we would normally take.

So we set the tables out in a socially distant way, basically having them in a huge rectangle. We taped tramlines to the floor which meant that as long as everyone else was seated, someone could walk up and down safely.

We allowed them to take their masks off when they were sat, as we ventilated the room, but whenever they were moving they had to have them on and that limits the risk as much as possible.

The content itself also needed to be altered. We had to come up with new ways to have that team building element without breaching safety guidelines – so a lot of our normal ideas weren’t usable.

We adopted the use of iPads and we used things like Google Classroom where we can post work and stream – giving them an opportunity to communicate and showcase their presentations etc.

They also got their own headphones and hand sanitiser bottles and we had a stringent cleaning routine at the beginning and end of every day.

Coronavirus also meant that the recruitment process was really difficult. We had to ensure each individual knew what they were coming into and had to make sure those we were taking on were up to it and could adapt to this different type of programme – because it was very clinical at times so that all became part of the process.

How difficult was that for you and those taking part? Will there be any elements of this new way that you’ll keep?

We planned as well as we could have but there are still things we didn’t account for. It was difficult at first because a lot of these young people suffer from anxiety and, with the way we’d set up the room, we hadn’t registered that some would feel exposed. There was no way around that but we had to adapt very quickly to ensure there were ways in which they could be ok.

It’s also difficult for myself as a leader, I was having to continually walk up and down, turning and addressing people the best I could. They were a lot less chatty as well initially as it’s hard to remain casual in that environment – especially when certain things have to be regimented. However, they adapted, followed the rules and it’s been great.

In terms of how we’ll carry on, the virtual element has been mind-blowing. When things come back to normal, we’ll definitely have the dynamic team situation but we’ll definitely look at introducing the virtual side for the end of the programme – where it’s more intense and there’s more paperwork. Having everything in one place has really helped us and that’s definitely one of the pros from this forced way of working. The technology has allowed us to do so much more and helped us get more feedback – which is great.

We’ve also trialled some virtual days, to give them a break as it can be really intense. At first they found it difficult but it’s really helped with their confidence as going forward I believe video chats and virtual interviews are going to be commonplace – even after the pandemic. The virtual aspect also helped meet deadlines because they could communicate and take the lead in a controlled way – having access to all the necessary tools that were saved virtually.

After a few weeks of them not being too productive or letting a deadline lapse we found that these new tools really helped them. They even planned their team challenge using these methods and it was brilliant to see them adapt and make it work. We would definitely keep that going forward as it’s a vital skill for students to learn.

Would you say this scheme helped these students forget the pandemic a bit?

Absolutely. They’ve certainly not felt how millions of others would have felt because they’ve had somewhere to be. The lockdown has less impact on their day to day lives because we’re still operating in a secure fire station as an educational tool and we’ve been allowed to continue and carry on. Whether that’s in person or virtually, they’ve had access to the course in the best way possible.

If there’s one thing I know for a fact is that they’ve all gained confidence from this and it’s a great by-product of this and I know they haven’t wanted it to end.

We do a rigorous 1-2-1 process which allows us to set them individual goals and we know, through better sleeping patterns, routines, new friends, this programme really helps them. They’re like a little family in the end and they become very protective of each other. They never regret it and this time has been no exception – despite the circumstances.

We have to remember that this does impact them really profoundly and if I bump into someone out and about, I’m often taken aback by how happy they are to see me – especially when I thought I was quite hard on them at times.

It really is such a unique thing. I’ve never done a job like it.