Burning to learn

The founder of Burning2Learn uses 'stealth learning' to get young people into jobs. He talks to Alex Castleton

According to The Guardian, young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the UK population. 'With 498,000 in that age group without a job, young people now fare comparatively worse than at any point since 1992,' stated an online report in February 2015.

Burning2Learn (B2L) is Alan Dean's answer for teenagers in the UK who have great potential and talents but struggle to find work related to their passions. 'We need to put schools back into the heart of our communities,’ he says. ‘Children are the seeds of the future and if we tend to them, nourish their passions and help them grow then they will flourish.’

The programme, which is based in Kent, helps students learn maths and English through ‘stealth learning’ on the job. Practical tasks in the real world teach them the numeracy and literacy skills they will need in the work place. The experience also helps them to build relations with employers and companies in fields they aspire to. They learn to appreciate the connection between B2L’s ‘3 Rs’ of respect, responsibility, reward: if they approach people and tasks with respect and responsibility they will reap the rewards.

Dean cites the example of a talented boy with autism who was a competent animator and produced visually appealing work, but could not find funding for university or college because of his lack of maths and English. B2L found him work which helped to improve his literacy and numeracy.

We need to put schools back into the heart of our communities. Children are the seeds of the future and if we tend to them, nourish their passions and help them grow then they will flourish

Dean created B2L in 1998, drawing on his experience of mentoring in the construction industry. He took young school leavers or drop-outs to sports events and commercial shows, and encouraged them to fulfil roles adults would do for a living. For instance, he took a group to the Apple Show at Olympia London and gave them the task of writing an article on any technology they could find in the four hours they were there.

Projects with The Prince's Trust, Swanley Town Council and Darenth Valley Rotary Club demonstrated that his methods worked. As his work spread, B2L participants visited a wide array of events, including The Guardian Young Reporters Day, the World Superbikes Series, The Big Bang Fair, Grand Designs Live! and The Gadget Show Live. At the World Superbike Series in 2004, the pupils had the opportunity to interview world champions such as Troy Corser, James Toseland, Tommy Hill and Carl Fogarty. B2L’s Junior Media Team then travelled around the world with the series for the whole year. This connection was further strengthened when the riders became B2L ambassadors.

Alan took another group of students to Silverstone race circuit. Their tasks included interviewing drivers and calculating drivers' times and finishing places on the circuit. 'My boys have never had an experience like it,’ wrote the Deputy Head of one of the schools involved. ‘On the day they were simply school pupils with no labels. Your generosity in providing such a wonderful base gave them a sense of pride and selfworth that is immeasurable.’ A parent commented, ‘My son hates school but with Burning2Learn he doesn’t realise he is doing school work. After spending two days up at Silverstone he asked me to take him back for the weekend. He wanted to work, even though he didn’t know he was working!’

'A lot of children I work with do not have good enough role models,' says Dean. ‘B2L try to be those role models for them and give them people to look up to.’ In 2012, he took part in an After the Riots forum organised by Initiatives of Change, which made clear that little was being done to help young people to face ‘moral challenges’. This is something B2L hopes to address along with its partners: Initiatives of Change, Challenger Troop CIC and Target Your Potential. B2L, like IofC, gives people the opportunity to meet inspirational individuals, in the belief that this will help them to change.

Over the last 18 months, Dean has also begun the Acorn Hub, a branch of B2L which focuses primarily on building relationships with companies and helping young people find work. He believes that we need to ‘restore a sense of community and give back to local businesses’. His hope is that the young people who pass through B2L will support their communities in the way he has supported them.

Feedback from students who have been through B2L suggests that the message is getting through. They say that they feel ‘valued’. One Year 11 student said: ‘The experience has raised my own self-esteem and confidence in my ability to achieve despite my dyslexia.’

The system puts a barcode on you,’ said another. ‘B2L mixed grammar school and special needs together and treated them as people.’

Burning2Learn helps kids of any age realise that it isn’t just about grades, it’s about the experience and what you as a person can bring to the task,’ says a third. ‘This isn’t recognised by many other companies. B2L is one of a kind. It’s personal, educational, environmental, confidence-building and inspiring.

The above interview by Alex Castleton first published on changemakersmagazine.org.