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“Even better than truly brilliant”

Lifting the lid on the Fair Train audit process

11th. October 2018

On-site audits are an extremely important part of Fair Train’s operations, as they help us to ensure the rigour and continued credibility of our Work Experience Quality Standard. Any accredited organisation can expect to be selected, at random, at any point in its two-year accreditation period, for an audit; that means providing materials in advance for detailed review and setting up a series of on-site activities and interviews for when a representative of Fair Train visits.

That sounds very regimented and formal, and they are very important, but audits are almost invariably uplifting and celebratory and it is genuinely inspiring for us to see the first-class work that is being carried out in all sectors by our accredited organisations of all types and sizes all round the country.

We don’t normally make public the results of our audits as, in essence, they are between us and the organisation. But as it’s Work Experience Month, and with the agreement of the organisation in question, we thought we’d publish this summary of an audit carried out yesterday with First Choice Homes Oldham to show how the process works.


What made yesterday’s audit even more special is that Rod Natkiel (our CEO) who conducted the audit, was accompanied, as observers, by five students from the Alliance Manchester Business School. This very international group (from the UK, India, Lebanon, Peru and France) is undertaking a review of Fair Train for us: a project as part of the students’ MBA course at the business school. More of that story another day!


First Choice Homes is the largest housing provider in Oldham, looking after 60% of the town’s social housing properties. It is also a committed provider of exceptionally well thought-through Work Experience placements, which it has been offering for more than six years; they run alongside the company’s apprenticeship programme. First Choice Homes Oldham, which is a co-operative and community benefit society registered with the Financial Conduct Authority, first achieved accreditation with Fair Train at Bronze in 2014. It moved up to Gold in 2017. Its aim is simply: improving lives in Oldham.


One of the key things we always want to establish in an audit is how much work-based learning is considered, throughout the organisation, to be important and meaningful. From what we heard and saw in yesterday’s audit and our other connections with the organisation over the years, there is clear evidence that all the c.420 staff at First Choice Homes fulfil that requirement and really buy into this activity. That spirit is generated from the very top, through passionate commitment from CEO Vinny Roche, and there’s exemplary enthusiasm, dedication and professionalism demonstrated by Michelle Tomlin, the company’s Employment and Skills Manager, and Naomi Martin-Smith, its Volunteer Co-Ordinator, who runs the work placements programme on a day-to-day basis. Michelle and Naomi were both interviewees in the audit.


Another element we look to verify in any Gold-level employer is that the “mentor/buddy” system is operating effectively; well, no-one could ask for a more caring mentor than Naomi!

Work placements at First Choice Homes are based on an 8-week/16 hours-per-week structure and there’s no upper age limit for participants; those undertaking placements with the company at the moment range from 19 years old to 64. Flexibility is key in the programme’s management; for example, child-care logistics often have to be factored in for placement participants and the schedules are adjusted for those individuals.


This exemplifies two key themes that one can see running consistently through all the work-based learning activities at the company: firstly, “setting people up to succeed” and, so, doing everything possible to achieve that; and secondly, being supportive in every way possible, as appropriate from person to person. That support can and does range from solving logistics challenges (like child-care) to more seriously life-impacting issues like homelessness, bereavement, substance abuse and mental ill-health.


There are currently 22 people undertaking placements with First Choice Homes Oldham and there’s a strong emphasis on accessibility in all aspects of the work-based learning it offers, not least in an applicant very rarely being turned away, whatever challenges s/he may present. And in its very practical approach to developing work skills and employability, First Choice Homes offers participants experience in a wide range of roles – from Project Administrator to Event Facilitator, Multi-Skilled Trade Operative and many more. This means that participants get a taste of just about everything. In every role experienced, and at all key stages of the placement, a participant will undertake documented self-evaluation, so that progress in the acquisition of skills can be monitored … and celebrated!


Always a highlight of any audit is meeting and talking in depth with placement participants. During the audit yesterday, we met four: one just embarking on a placement (having been through preparatory training days); one at about the mid-point; and two who have completed the placement and have moved into employment … one with First Choice Homes Oldham itself. That’s great progression.

Strongly consistent in all those participants’ stories was how the placement is making, or has made, a huge beneficial impact on their confidence and self-belief. Individual themes emerged. They included: overcoming worries about lack of modern-day skills and fitting in when returning to the workplace after a long gap; seriously insufficient employability skills (e.g. CV writing, preparing for and coping with interviews); building up the capability to withstand a full 37.5-hour week after health issues; and bouncing back from redundancy and unemployment in one’s 50s and feeling “on the scrap-heap”. It would not be an over-statement to say that what we saw yesterday was four people who had been through a transformation.


All of the participant interviewees were highly complimentary about the work placement experience with First Choice Homes Oldham, and one described it as “even better than truly brilliant”. Praise does not come much higher than that. It is also reflected in the company’s related policies and placement documents, reviewed before, during and after the audit.

Whilst, as is always the case, there were minor enhancements we suggested to First Choice Homes Oldham’s paperwork and the practices, they were very much that: minor. The company’s approach to all aspects is exemplary.


First Choice Homes would very much like to be able to offer a job to virtually all its work placement participants, but that is not an option. It does, however, ensure that its support doesn’t end when the placement does – not just through keeping in touch and being there for any follow-up enquiries, but also by including former placement participants in its casual volunteering roster.


As audits nearly always are, our visit to Oldham yesterday was extremely uplifting. This is a great example of a Gold Level Work Experience Quality Standard accredited organisation fully demonstrating all the qualities that we believe are essential in making work-based learning meaningful and valuable. First Choice Homes is also clearly achieving its aim of improving lives in Oldham.


Many congratulations to everyone in the company on this terrific work and all of us at Fair Train are delighted that we are able to confirm, in the light of the audit, that First Choice Homes Oldham has maintained its Gold Level status … with flying colours!

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