In partnership with the Prince's project
The conversion of a former navy minesweeper into a floating radio station with a mission to unite the communities of Northern Ireland, and the digging of a fish pond at a special needs school are just two of the most recent challenges for the Prince's Trust volunteers based at a Portsmouth FE college.
Highbury College is one of 300 partner institutions which runs the 12-week programme, preparing some of Britain's most disadvantaged young people for education, training and jobs.
Last Sunday the Prince's Trust celebrated its 25th anniversary with London's Party in the Park, an open-air rock concert in Hyde Park. In its quarter-century, the Trust has helped change the lives of more than 400,000 young people. Around 50,000 have participated in the volunteer programme and more than 43,000 have set up in business through the Trust's business start-up programme.
The story goes that in 1976 the Prince of Wales tuned in to a radio programme and heard a senior probation officer discussing the plight of disadvantaged young people in London. Summoning the man to the Palace, the prince probed deeper and as a result of their first meeting he set up a task force using his navy pension to start the ball rolling.
Elizabeth Crowther-Hunt, executive director of the Prince's Trust volunteer programmes, is in charge of a pound;23-30 million operation that draws down funding through a variety of sources, and benefits around 10,000 16 to 23-year-olds a year.
She came to the Trust in 1990 to grow the volunteer programme from 10 pilot community venture centres in Wales, Cornwall, London and cities across the north and Midlands.
"The way to achieve scale and bring the scheme to a wider range of people was to connect with local partners, which is why we are involved with 60 FE colleges across the UK."
The Prince's Trust funds colleges to the tune of pound;25,000 but only for two years, by the end of which time they must have covered their start-up costs and be self-sufficient. Fund-raising by the volunteers is an important component of nearly all Prince's Trust programmes.
Mrs Crowther-Hunt explains that the Highbury College volunteer programme is designed to tackle an area of specific high unemployment. The college provides accommodation, student facilities and transport and big local employers, Sainsburys, Kwik-Fit and the MoD, supply junior staff on secondment to join the teams of about a dozen unemployed youngsters while they work on community or environmental projects.
The 12-week programmes are made up of two fortnight-long projects at the beginning and at the end of the course. In between, volunteers are learning key skills, like communications, teamwork and application of number - mainly through work placements. They could also get intense coaching in basic skills and self-presentation to enter for their City amp; Guilds profile of achievement. Teamwork is a particular strength.
Mrs Crowther-Hunt says: "Generally you get two employed to every 10 unemployed in a team. Their participation is one of the scheme's great strengths. The volunteers can see that these people have development needs too. By the end of week two you'd find it hard to tell the employed from the unemployed."
But tackling disadvantage is a much bigger task than the Prince's Trust can cope with on its own. Liz Taylor, franchise director for Highbury College, puts it in perspective.
"We've got 615 unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds within the heart of Portsmouth. I can only run nine programmes a year and if we're only averaging a dozen people at a time, that's not very many."
For the Highbury College volunteers there is up to four hours extra a week in basic skills tuition funded by the South-East England Development Agency. Nationally, the Prince's Trust reckons on getting 71 per cent of positive outcomes - moving young people into jobs, training or education.
In Portsmouth, of the 46 per cent who completed the programme last year, 30 per cent went into education and training and the rest into employment.
The key to the survival and growing influence of the Trust has been its ability to reinvent itself. The current agenda is focused very much on connecting volunteers to a framework of national qualifications, such as the City amp; Guilds profile of achievement.
Key skills have been an important part of the programme for the past four years. But where the old key skills at NVQ level 1 included some self-assessment, the new exams have thrown a spanner in the works.
Mrs Crowther-Hunt says: "At the moment it's virtually impossible for our young people to get their key skills qualifications, even though they're developing these areas."
In future the Trust is tailoring its offering to meet the needs of individual groups which it has identified as under-performing or having additional needs. The jobless on New Deal get an extra 14 weeks' IT training beyond the normal 12-week volunteer programme.
Says Mrs Crowther-Hunt: "We're focusing on how we can better help people with individual needs - for example, care leavers, and young offenders."