Surrey County Council (SCC) – the UK partner in the IMAGINE project – is continuing to implement its “full co-production” approach to IMAGINE, summarised in the diagram below :
For us, co-production means the IMAGINE project is not solely a training programme. Whilst there will be many opportunities for learning by everyone, we are trying to engage IMAGINE participants in co-creating lasting projects that are built on equal and reciprocal relationships between SCC staff, participating young people, and their families, neighbours and communities. This means that we :
By working in this way, we believe that participants in the IMAGINE pilot will become far more effective at bringing about change in their own lives and in communities across Surrey – a hypothesis we are keen to test out !
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, we had started to co-produce three local pilot projects, in different community locations across Surrey – a small community with relatively high levels of deprivation in the north east of Surrey ; a peri-urban location in the south west connected to an army barracks ; and a plot of land on the site of one of Surrey’s hospitals. Each community was very different, but all involved a local partner who was committed to the vision of IMAGINE and the potential to do something different with the land that is on their doorstep. By March 2020, however, it became clear that community locations were not viable in the short-term, given COVID-19 restrictions (although we are now in the process in restarting work at two of the three community locations referred to above - the hospital site is still off limits for obvious reasons).
In response to these circumstances, we rapidly established two new sites on SCC-owned land - High Ashurst and Henley Fort Outdoor Learning Centres - thus enabling us to deliver the project despite the restrictions we faced. The flexibility of our co-production methodology, where we seek to work in open, collaborative ways with our local partners,helped us to quickly move resources, draw in other organisations on an equal footing, and respond as the national and local context changed.
As regards the sites themselves, the High Ashurst one is a former orchard spread across 0.2 hectares, which had been left for nature to reclaim - most of it had been taken over by densely packed bramble bushes and weeds. In a similar way, the Henley Fort site was a former allotment on a site of historical significance (which has brought some interesting challenges and opportunities for learning), it also covers 0.2 hectares and again that had been reclaimed by nature. Across the two sites, 32 young people have so far taken part in co-producing our work - working with us to plan, reclaim and redesign both sites, and building a system of raised beds and planters that we will use to grow produce for use in the local community.
To date, 32 young people had taken part in co-producing the two sites with us. All of these young people were engaged with by SCC through their involvement in the youth justice system – so they represent some of the young people who typically face the biggest barriers to employment. The IMAGINE project has presented a great opportunity for them to be valued for the skills, ideas and abilities they bring, and provided the chance to contribute to something that is genuinely life-enhancing. It will be interesting to see the outcomes that young people achieve as a result of working in co-production with the team, as the pilot sites develop.
Support and training for participants has been provided to help them develop the skills required to completely transform these sites. This has involved using a range of industry standard tools, equipment and processes. Many of the young people who are NEET are working towards formal “on the job” qualifications, accreditation, and other forms of personal progression, so that their learning might be formally recognised and their employability improved.
Participants have also been encouraged to bring their positive and pre-existing interests to the project so as to strengthen the identity, unity and well being of the team, including facilitating occasional group music sessions and fitness classes. These activities are delivered on site, structured and scheduled around the main IMAGINE project training opportunities and continue to encourage the engagement and holistic development of participating young people.
In the second half of 2020 we are looking to consolidate the work done to date at both High Ashurst and Henley Fort. Whilst we are currently unable to restart the planned activities at the hospital site due to COVID-19, we are restarting the work we had begun with our community partners in Stanwell and Pirbright. This is becoming possible as the lockdown eases in the UK, staff employed by partner organisations return to work, and more activities can restart.
In conclusion, we are excited by what will be possible as we move through the next phase of the project, seeing where this journey of co-production takes us.