A renowned training scheme which has transformed the lives of young people with learning disabilities is being threatened with closure.
The Engine Shed, a social enterprise business which has been running for nearly 25 years, is set to lose its vital £211,200 annual funding from Edinburgh City Council.
The move has sparked an outcry from parents who say that working for the charity – which runs a bakery and popular cafe in St Leonards – has been a life-changing experience for their children.
The institution offers three years’ training to 30 vulnerable young adults at a time, equipping them with skills and confidence to find a mainstream job.
But a shake-up of employment training for the disabled by the city council means it faces being stripped of its funding.
The threat to The Engine Shed – which is supported by crime writer Ian Rankin – comes just two years after Blindcraft was closed by the council and seven months after Edinburgh’s Remploy factory was shut.
Today, parents of those who work at The Engine Shed said they feared for the prospects of their children if the vital scheme, which provides a stepping stone between home and working life, was to go.
Sue McLernon, 50, of Seafield, whose 21-year-old daughter, Danielle, has worked at The Engine Shed for 18 months, said: “It is appalling that funding could be withdrawn from such a brilliant place. I know that my daughter, who has autism, has been transformed since she went there.
“For many it’s the only place available to give them a boost and the chance to learn something that will give them the opportunity to work in mainstream employment. To take it away would be heartbreaking.”
Parents first heard of the funding cuts on Monday in a letter sent to them by The Engine Shed’s chief executive, Marian MacDonald.
In it she wrote: “I am writing to let you know that we have just been made aware of the decision that Edinburgh council will not continue to fund training places . . . from April 1, 2014. This decision . . . if approved . . . will mean we will have to face the prospect of closing.”
Baberton parents Aileen and Gavin Johnstone, whose son, Christopher, 20, who is also autistic, were critical of the decision.
Aileen, 45, said: “Without The Engine Shed, Christopher would not have been ready to take a step into employment.
“There simply isn’t anywhere else like this in Edinburgh. Families are anxious to find out what’s happening – there’s so much uncertainty.”
Christopher, whose training placement will end in June, has a two-day work placement at Lloyds in Orchard Brae.
Launched in 1989 with a similar ethos to Rudolf Steiner schools – focusing on the unique abilities of each individual – The Engine Shed is part of Garvald Community social enterprise and runs a cafe and conference facilities, a bakery and outside catering.
Based in a Victorian railway building from beside the old Innocent Railway line, it works with major employers such as NHS Lothian to move people into full time work.
The council’s funding is just half of its income – the rest is generated through its own businesses.
At a meeting with parents on Wednesday, Ian Hood, co-ordinator of Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, said he would help spearhead a campaign against the move.
A petition is to be set up through social media.
He said: “People were concerned and surprised to discover a service as valuable as The Engine Shed was not going to be funded by the council any more. We want to make sure councillors know exactly what’s happening.”
Lothians MSP Sarah Boyack added: “The Engine Shed does a fantastic job helping people with learning disabilities gain confidence and experience to get into work.
“I’ve been concerned to hear about the review which has been carried out and have already spoken to senior councillors about the need to ensure the long-term future of The Engine Shed.”
However, council consultation of six disability employment schemes in the city claims that The Engine Shed is the only one not to have found a single person employment last year.
Braille Press saw four people get jobs, Forth Sector nine people, Real Jobs five people, Enable two people, and Intowork four people. Only Forth Sector receives more funding than The Engine Shed.
The consultation – which involved 18 focus groups – has led the council to believe disabled people want an individualised service and “did not want to be segmented by their disability.”
A spokesperson said: “We are running a number of public consultations on the changes. We are still in the stage before final recommendations go to committee on June 25. The Engine Shed has the opportunity to tender for any future options but will have to adapt its service to what clients have told us they want.”
Councillor Frank Ross, the city’s economy convener, said: “It’s vital the council ensures young people with disabilities are given as much support as possible to help them into employment. The new service we are proposing is based on extensive consultation with the operators and users of the existing services.
“People told us they wanted a service where they could be supported into employment, rather than getting stuck in the training and volunteering cycle.
“Any future operator of this new service will need to meet the requirements of the Supported Employment service model – recommended by the Scottish Government – to be able to bid for the funding available. This will ensure people with disabilities looking for jobs get the support they need – and that for the funding the council has available, we can deliver real opportunities.”
Over the years, the Engine Shed has had an excellent record of finding employment, placing up to nine out of ten of its trainees in full-time work including at Edinburgh Castle.
Ms McLernon added: “We will be doing all we can to change the council’s mind about this, and we would encourage everyone to write to their councillors and complain about this.”
Fewer and fewer work opportunities
Recent years have seen the demise of employment opportunities for the disabled and people with learning difficulties.
Sheltered employment firm Remploy was established in 1945 and over the following decades it established a network of 83 factories across the UK.
In 2012, Government ministers announced a number of its factories would close, including one at South Gyle, arguing that the budget for disabled employment services could be spent more effectively.
By the end of this year all of the original factories will have been closed or sold-off and more than 3500 disabled people will have lost their jobs. Craigmillar’s Blindcraft factory, which provided work for blind and disabled workers for 218 years, closed in 2011 as a result of budget cuts.
Despite a determined campaign to save it, a solution to maintain the facility, founded as the Royal Blind Asylum in 1793, was not found in time.
‘Why close something that has been so successful?’
Stunned parents struggling to take in the news spoke of just how valuable the Engine Shed had been to them.
Marjory Dodds attended Wednesday’s meeting with her daughter Caitlin, 21, who has worked in the café for almost two years.
She said: “People are astounded that the council is even considering taking funding away from the only place in Edinburgh that offers this kind of support to young people with learning difficulties.
“The council are talking about putting people out to work when they are not ready. People feel safe coming here, it’s a comfortable environment.”
Another parent, who did not want to be named, said: “At the moment we’re still taking it in.
“It’s an environment where youngsters can mix with other people as opposed to just sitting in front of a desk so that when they go on to a work environment they will be ready.”
Wendy Craig, whose son Matthew, 20, uses the service, said its closure would have a massive impact on families.
She said: “My son has been coming to the Engine Shed for two years and it’s been the making of him. If it wasn’t for the Engine Shed he would probably be at home on his PlayStation.
“The service has been going for 24 years, why close something that has been so successful?”
Case study: ‘Danielle’s become a different person since going there’
FOR the last 18 months, every Monday to Friday 21-year-old Danielle McLernon has woken to her alarm at 6am, got dressed, had breakfast, caught a bus and been in to work by 8.15am – 45 minutes before she’s due to start.
“That’s because she just loves going so much,” laughs her mum Sue.
“Since she started at The Engine Shed, she’s been transformed. She suffers from autism and would find social interaction always very difficult.
“It was improving as she grew up, but since she’s gone there to work she’s become a different person.
“She couldn’t work in the cafe because she also suffers issues with her hearing – she can’t bear the sound of babies crying, for instance – so she works in hospitality and catering, which she always wanted to do.
“It’s an amazing place because it’s giving her skills which she can take into a mainstream job, but also because it’s given her real independence and a sense of responsibility.
‘She knows people are relying on her to go to work. She likes getting her £15 at the end of the week and she knows she’s got it for doing a good job and she can spend it as she likes.
“Also before the job I used to drive her everywhere but you’ve got to be able to travel independently to get a place there, so she’s had to get used to the buses.
“One day coming home her bus pass wouldn’t swipe – though it wasn’t out of date – and the driver told her she’d have to pay. In the past she wouldn’t have been able to cope with that. But she got her purse out and paid. I was amazed when she told me.”
Sue, from Seafield, says The Engine Shed is vital for Danielle’s future – and that of others who’ll come after her. “It’s a place where they can develop without fear of making mistakes and that’s hugely important. They feel safe.
“When Danielle left school she went to Stevenson to do a work access course, then it was on to Telford to do a Pathways course, but the funding for that was stopped. So she was going to be left with nothing until the Engine Shed offered her a place.
“It’s an amazing project and we will fight to keep it open.”