Lindsey Dunn, Founder and Director of Skills to Shine

Lindsey Dunn runs a social enterprise with a £200,000 turnover - but was written off at school. This is her story.

Lindsey Dunn
Lindsey Dunn

Lindsey Dunn's determination and drive saw her overcome a shaky start to achieve educational success, while also laying the foundations of a career improving the prospects of some of society's most disengaged youngsters. Jo Blakemore discovered more.

Lindsey Dunn is an intelligent and focused woman who runs a £200,000-turnover business and has plans to double staff numbers. But at school she was told she was too illiterate to take A-levels and sidelined while her peers were visiting universities.

This treatment left its mark and she determined that no pupil in her position would be written off by the educational establishment, as she had been. To that end, she launched the social enterprise operation Skills to Shine to positively influence the experiences of hundreds of young people across the region through enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Dunn said: “When I was at school, the education system wasn’t perfect for me. I had dyslexia and I was always the kid that wasn’t that bright. Then I was told I couldn’t do A-level history because I couldn’t read enough so I ended up leaving school and going to get a job.”

This lasted a few years but, disenchanted, Dunn left, acquired some A-levels and got into university to study history. After being left to sink or swim at high school, she found the university experience very different.

“At university I was sent for dyslexia tests and the man who did the test told me, ‘I have no idea how you’re here; how, with your level of dyslexia, you have managed to get to university’. He said he had never seen it so severe at this level without any support so I got loads of help at university which was fantastic. Dyslexia is the difference between a person’s IQ and a person’s ability and my IQ might be up here but my ability is down here.”

She was awarded a 2:1, narrowly missing out on a first – “I got 67%. 70% is a first. I worked my socks off” – greatly helped by her husband Shaun, who rewrote her essays so the lecturers could read them. The pair met 14 years ago when she was 17 and now live in Monkseaton, North Tyneside, with Stanley, three, and Nancy, two in March, just a few miles from her childhood home. Her parents live next door and one of her sisters close by.

It was while she was at university that Dunn laid the seeds of her current career working with disengaged young people.

She explained: “I started working with kids in care as an outreach worker, doing youth work, running play schemes in school holidays and doing things after school, and I noticed that those kids needed something – just the same as obviously I needed when I was at school – and it was something that was missing.

“I thought, ‘These kids aren’t succeeding in school but it’s not their fault’. Quite a few of them had behavioural problems, social and emotional problems, some were mildly on the autistic spectrum and because I’d worked with them very closely over four years, I could see this and thought, ‘We’ve got to do something for them’.

“When I left university I decided I would go into teaching and did a placement in a school then decided it wasn’t for me. I looked for something that was an alternative in education and I ended up getting a job in the Discovery Museum, then the Stephenson Railway Museum. I worked in musuems for about three years and it was an education. It was everything you could do about creative learning.

“At the same time I did a master’s degree in special educational needs because I could just see these kids and I wanted something to be able to help them. I wanted to learn theory, how children learn, how children with different disabilities learn in different ways.”

After this she joined the Wansbeck Enterprise Education Network (WEEN) – part of the Go Wansbeck initiative at Northumberland County Council – as an enterprise coordinator where her team had a “huge” government grant to put enterprise on the curriculum in 35 first middle and high schools.

“I loved every minute of it and I could really see that it was a way of learning that the kids were getting. Schools loved it, the kids had fantastic results and the work was fantastic. If you were a five-year-old learning about the Three Little Pigs, we would work with and train a teacher to do this in a certain way and would facilitate any visits, any trips. For instance, we would take them to a building site - Three Little Pigs build a house. How do you build a house? We looked at all the different jobs involved; we were giving these kids positive role models and aspirations. Some of them were third-generation unemployed and we were showing them that you get a job when you leave school and we’re going to start at a young age to show you that.

“If a child was in a higher age group at school, and was learning about India, we would say, ‘Let’s take you on a visit to an Indian restaurant and we’ll set up our own Indian restaurant in school and we’ll learn about catering,’ so they learn about the different jobs and careers.”

At this stage she went off on maternity leave to have Stanley and while absent, there was a change of administration and the Conservative government got in. The initiative Dunn worked on came to an end.

She said: “My turning point was when I went to the office and asked a man, not in my team, ‘What happens now? We’ve done all this fantastic work’. And he said, ‘It’s put in a box and you shut the door on it and the next administration will come up with another initiative and you just go and join that one’. He was lovely, I really got on well with him, but when he said that I stood there and said, ‘Golly, is that what my life is going to become? I just become a slave to the next initiative. Reinvent the wheel again’.

“Obviously a man in his 50s has been through that and knows it’s what happens but I wasn’t going to let that happen so I wrote a list of 10 people and thought I would start with them, 10 people who might be able to help. I emailed then and told them I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, I wanted to continue the good work we’d been doing, build on it and I was going to do that by setting up a social enterprise.

“I got this email back from a gentleman who ran the London-based national Edge Foundation. He said, ‘I’ll support you, we’ve got a spare pot of cash to help you set up’. They specialise in vocational learning and are behind the university technical colleges and career colleges, all this different way of learning from 14.”

How can you expect a child at 14 to make an informed decision to go down a particular route for the rest of their life? That is Dunn’s belief and she thinks it was crucial to her winning this backing.

“My favourite example – I asked two children, about six years old, what do you want to do when you leave school. One said he wanted to be a burglar and the other wanted to be a TV-er because his dad watches TV all the time – and they expect these children to make a decision to go to engineering college or catering college.

“How can a child who has that understanding at six have a understanding at 14 to make a decision to go down a particular route? I don’t think they can. So I said to the Edge Foundation that I would run some pilots on how to give the young people the knowledge, skills and experience to make that informed decision, which I know how to do because we did it at the WEEN, and they gave me some funding for a year when Stanley was four months old so I got on with it.”

In this fashion Skills to Shine was born. After the Edge Foundation cash ran out, she managed to keep the approach to learning going in any way possible, one of them being through summer schools which were a huge success last year with 400 young people taking part. This year’s target is 1,000, backed by Department for Education cash.

Dunn said: “In May we got £275,000 National Lottery Reaching Communities cash which is absolutely fantastic, it will run our four-year enterprise pilot and pay for a full-time member of staff.”

The first use of the cash was in early December when four groups of young people worked on different programmes. One group learned about chocolate, studied all the different jobs in a chocolatier’s, visited Gareth James Chocolatier’s in Tynemouth then went into John Lewis and Fenwick’s and saw how it was sold before working with Ken Speckle from Morpeth on making chocolate.

Dunn said: “The kids put it all together in this pop-up shop donated by the Duke of Northumberland’s Estate in the Keel Row Shopping Centre in Blyth and sold their products. They kept the profits and it just showed them that if you do a hard day’s work, you make something from it.

“We had another group which learned about nutrition and worked with Northumbria University to put nutritional packs together and sell the recipe cards, and another group did woodcarving, selling their decorations.

“I’m not bothered whether they follow this through or not, I just want them to have tasted it. It introduces them to positive role models and the world of work and engages them a bit more in society. We show them that they are actually good at something and it gives them confidence.”

Another project on the horizon is aviation with pregnant teenage girls - “Something along the lines of female role models in that sort of industry, we want to show them that they can get a job in a male-dominated world doing something completely different.”

Since starting Skills to Shine, Dunn has recruited Alice Boother for the National Lottery programme and Hannah Frizzell to run summer school programme. She hopes to double staff numbers.

“I’m expecting another baby in May. Then I’m going to have three children and hopefully 1,000 children starting on a summer school, it will be mental but I think because I enjoy it so much and I see what the young people get out of it, I know it’s got to continue.

“I don’t think any of this would have happened if I hadn’t had dyslexia at school - I go back to that all the time.”

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