A good day in the frozen north


I have been Chief Executive of the RSA for over six years, which is a personal record for one job. It means I have got a substantial emotional investment in the Society. A downside is that criticism, especially if I think it is unfair, can really get to me. An upside is the warm glow when I see us at our best.


This morning I was bursting with pride. The occasion was the official launch of our Transitions project which is working in partnership with HMP Everthorpe in East Yorkshire to create a ‘through the gate’ social enterprise centre. Like many RSA projects – and this is one of our great strengths – this one has been long in development. It started with a commission on prison learning chaired by the then provost of UCL Malcolm Grant which culminated in the report ‘The Learning Prison’. Then, in 2011, the Transitions report was published  advocating a social enterprise model to bring together some of the best practice in prison training, work and rehabilitation.


The next step was a classic example of how the different strands of the RSA come together. An article about Transitions in the Society’s journal attracted the attention of Ed Cornmell FRSA newly appointed governor of Everthorpe. Ed contacted project director Rachel O’Brien – his prison owned adjacent land comprising fifty acres and an abandoned country house. ‘How about making Transitions happen here?’ he asked.


Eighteen months later and Ed and I, along with the recently elected Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Grove, are addressing a hundred and thirty people comprising key figures from the sub region’s criminal justice system, leaders of innovative voluntary sector rehabilitation schemes, members of the local community and a group of ‘category D’ prisoners from Everthorpe, one of whom has just been appointed as administrator for Transitions.


It was a great event with the our ideas getting a warm and generous response. Another high point was when our dynamic regional chair Pam Warhurst jumped up to pledge to mobilise the thousand RSA Fellows in Yorkshire behind the scheme. They will be adding ti the efforts of the expert group of Fellows who have been working with Rachel.


And then it was off to the faded glory of Everthrope Hall and its magnificent grounds. As we wandered around scarcely a minute passed without new suggestions for how the estate could be developed; forestry skills, eco-tourism, mountain bike repair and hire, organic horticulture, fish farming; all activities which could combine feasible business models with the opportunity for prisoners and ex offenders to develop skills and careers and build self confidence. Finally, we toured the newly refurbished Transitions office in one wing of the hall, expertly repaired, painted, decorated and furnished (including tables made in the prison) by Everthrope inmates.


Of course, there is a long way to go and the next year is still, fundamentally, about evaluation.  The uncertain future of the probation service hangs over the scheme with worries that if payment by results in probation is like PBR in employment services it will be very hard to carve out spaces for innovative practice. But if the energy in the room is anything to go by we will find a way to make Transitions happen.


I have to admit there was a moment when I imagined beaming into the room the small contingent of people who continue to argue that today’s RSA has no mission or that we have somehow abandoned the commitment to invention, enterprise and public good that inspired the founders of the Society. I wanted them to see the delight expressed by so many that the RSA has brought such an ambitious and innovative project to this part of the world.


I guess when I find myself having a continuous internal conversation with my detractors it may be time to wonder whether I too have been inside for too long. But sitting here in Rachel’s snug cottage waiting to go out for a celebration dinner with key players in the project I will be keeping any transition plans of my own on hold for a while longer.


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