Museum of East Anglian Life

Creating fair employment and good work for all

To help reduce local unemployment, the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) offers training in land-based skills and traditional crafts. Its Work-Based Learning (WBL) programme has provided practical skills and employability training for long-term unemployed and vulnerable adults since 2007.


A detailed Social Return on Investment (SROI) study commissioned by the museum shows that the programme gives participants a real chance of getting a job. It helps them make new friends and develop hope for the future. It also provides a boost to families and the community by linking with services working with some of the most disadvantaged adults in the area.


Work is good, and unemployment bad, for physical and mental health. So getting people into work is critical to reducing health inequalities. Rates of unemployment are highest among specific groups including those with no or few qualifications and skills, and people with disabilities and mental ill health.

Suffolk's economy is under-developed, skills levels are low and the rural economies are in need of a boost.

MEAL is a social enterprise, charitable organisation and accredited museum in Stowmarket. It sees its core competencies as long-term engagement with communities and use of its assets, with a particular focus on social capital and wellbeing.

It has a strong sense of social purpose and a successful track record of working with vulnerable people – helping them develop, learn new skills, gain qualifications and fulfil their potential. The WBL programme it runs is fundamentally about helping participants to be work ready.

Who was involved?

The WBL programme is run by MEAL's enterprise team, using both in-house and external trainers.

Suffolk County Council is a major partner. It sees MEAL as a trusted partner that helps deliver its priorities around community learning. The council has:

  • routed Skills Funding Agency ‘Neighbourhood Learning in Deprived Communities' funding to MEAL for the WBL programme – initially £30,000 a year, falling to £12,000
  • increased its revenue support grant to MEAL.

Several agencies refer long-term unemployed people – often with learning or physical disabilities or mental health problems – to the WBL programme. They include Job Centre Plus, MIND, Mencap and the YMCA.

The problem and how it was tackled

The main challenges with the WBL programme were how to:

  • create capacity to deliver structured learning
  • measure and demonstrate the project's impact
  • build financial stability.

Creating capacity to deliver structured learning

Running the WBL programme is a significant time commitment for a small organisation.

Between 40 and 50 people take part in the WBL programme each year. Groups of up to 12 adults attend four days a week, six hours a day for eight weeks. Participants:

  • learn skills and gain work experience in animal welfare, grounds and buildings maintenance, and traditional East Anglian crafts, such as hazel hurdle making, printing and milling
  • explore some of the 45,000 objects in MEAL's collection
  • gain knowledge about how a museum works and why our history and culture are important to preserve
  • work towards accreditation under the Sector Skills Council for land-based industries, Lantra
  • can gain first aid and fire marshal qualifications.

Each participant has a personal development plan and weekly supervision. Team building and other life skills form an explicit part of the programme. And volunteers 'buddy' participants as well as teach them practical skills.

MEAL appointed a volunteer coordinator in 2007 funded by Suffolk's local strategic partnership to:

  • run the programme
  • strengthen the volunteer base
  • develop other learning opportunities.

Two years later the museum used its own resources to appoint a learning and enterprise manager. And it secured funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for a participation officer.

The three-person enterprise team now runs several businesses, including commercial flower growing, as well as the WBL, supported volunteering and prison resettlement programmes.

Evidencing the difference WBL makes

MEAL recognised that efforts to measure the impact of museums often rely on qualitative narrative about individuals' experiences – with few or no quantifiable measures of their social value.

The museum wanted to evaluate the WBL programme using a credible methodology that "avoids the imprecision of qualitative and blandness of quantitative evaluation".

SROI analysis captures social, environmental and economic benefit, and quantifies the results to compare the return to the investment.

MEAL commissioned ‘Investing in culture and community', a SROI study of its WBL programme published in 2011. The study collected evidence from the 2009/10 participants, partners, staff and families to identify the difference the programme makes.

‘Investing in culture and community' shows what the WBL programme has achieved for participants, families, the state and community, museum staff and volunteers.

A calculation of the return on investment – discounting impact the programme cannot claim full credit for – shows a return of £229,000 over five years. This means that every £1 invested in the programme creates social value of £4.30.

Building financial sustainability

The WBL programme and SROI study have informed a three-year ‘Skills for the Future' apprenticeship programme with Gressenhall Farm and Workshop, Norfolk.

This started in April 2011, funded by a £600,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant until 2014. It offers apprenticeships, internships and work experience in heritage skills.

The Skills for the Future programme is a natural progression from the WBL programme, which it runs alongside. It targets different learners, such as people seeking a career change following redundancy.

The study has also helped MEAL secure further funding to continue running the WBL programme.

And it has demonstrated that MEAL is a credible organisation for a large-scale organisation to partner with when pitching for a major project.

Outcomes and impact

The study established that the programme has made a significant difference to participants and other stakeholders, with long-lasting outcomes for participants.

Achievements of the WBL programme in 2009/10 include:

  • 90 per cent of participants experienced progress towards the world of work
  • 70 per cent progressed into training, volunteering or work
  • 70 per cent experienced increased confidence and hope for the future
  • 50 per cent experienced better relationships
  • 70 per cent of families reported a better family life
  • the average value of welfare payment savings was just under £3,000
  • the four main referring agencies reported more effective and efficient local service delivery, through successful placements for long-term
  • unemployed people, many with complex needs
  • all museum staff and volunteers improved their confidence in dealing with disadvantaged people.

Calculations using accepted financial proxies to represent the value created in 2009/10 include:

  • progression towards work: £80,659
  • increased confidence and hope for the future: £11,806
  • development of positive relationships: £6,946
  • better family life: £22,672
  • welfare payment savings: £52,195.

These figures include actual and projected savings for the state through, for example:

  • reductions in welfare payments – Job Seekers Allowance, incapacity and housing benefits
  • lower demand for counselling services
  • increased tax revenues.

Key learnings

The museum's values are critical to making the WBL programme work. A strong sense of social purpose and commitment to asset-based community development are shared by the board, staff and volunteers. The WBL programme is seen as a natural progression of what MEAL was already doing.

The combination of the heritage and cultural assets is crucial. MEAL makes good use of its resources to deliver the WBL programme, that is its:

  • 75 acre estate
  • 15 historic buildings
  • 45,000 objects and animals.

Participants learn traditional crafts, work outdoors in a heritage environment and learn about their past. This gives them a stronger connection to their community and local heritage, helping create a sense of belonging and place.

The combination of community and cultural investment is also key. Holding the programme in the museum ‘levers in' extra investment of £18,000 of museum assets and £3,000 of volunteering time.

The calibre of the trainers is important too. They have expertise in training gained from outside the museum sector and work well with vulnerable adults, many with mental health problems.

What could have been done better?

The baseline data used to track progress could have been more robust. New approaches to collecting information will include both baseline and tracking data.

Next steps

MEAL is working with Suffolk County Council on a strategic partnering arrangement to merge the county records office, archaeology service and museum into a heritage social enterprise. This is a response to the council's policy to divest services and is expected to go live in 2012/13.

The learning and enterprise manager also sits on the board of a cultural consortium for Suffolk and Cambridgeshire developing a bid for outsourced public contracts.

Further information

John Lanagan, Learning and Enterprise Manager
Museums of East Anglian Life

The Marmot Review website

The MEAL SROI study 2011, full report – on the MEAL website


14 June 2012

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