A social enterprise which builds houses and helps young people to learn trade skills and get work experience has set up a permanent home in Reading.

New Meaning, a social enterprise founded in 2006, set up its first construction school called ToolShed in High Wycombe in 2015 and has now launched its site in Reading, on Portman Road.

The school has three courses (construction, living independently, and ‘work and study’), as well as building houses and employing ex-students to help build them.

READ MORE: Reading to lose more than half of its community safety funding

Run by Reading-born manager Jess Tyrrell, the construction course for 16-19-year-olds and the independent living course for young people with special needs launch next week at the new Reading base. The study and work course started last year at The Curious Lounge but will also now be at the Portman Road site.

Reading Chronicle: PICTURED: Jess TyrrellPICTURED: Jess Tyrrell

All the social enterprise’s activities are now under the New Meaning name.

A gap in the market – the construction course and housebuilding

Co-founded by David Lett, a psychologist who was “astounded at the gap in the market”, and John Evans, the main idea of Toolshed (now New Meaning) was to teach young people in multi-trade construction skills and help them to find work.

Jess, helped to launch Toolshed in 2015.

She said: “David re-mortgaged his house and put everything on the line because he believed so strongly in the idea.

“He is such an inspiration for us all.”

The courses use David’s program on attitude and development and are focused on the idea: ‘You cannot choose your situation but you can chose your attitude to the situation’.

Jess says she does not want to be in competition with mainstream schools but schools “are not for everyone”.

Tom Armstrong, 17, is a former student who now works as an assistant teacher on the construction course and wants to become a property developer.

Reading Chronicle: PICTURED: The construction coursePICTURED: The construction course

Reading Chronicle: PICTURED: Andy Hayes and Tom ArmstrongPICTURED: Andy Hayes and Tom Armstrong

He said: “I am really excited to be here and pass on my experience to other people.

“I think it is a great opportunity for young people. I am an apprentice at the moment but was at Toolshed last year.

“School was pretty terrible. I got my maths and English out the way, but everything else I wasn’t the best at.

“For people who struggle at school, New Meaning is a good opportunity to not feel too pressurised.”

Andy Hayes, who left school at 16 to become a carpenter, is the construction course teacher in Reading.

He said: “It was the perfect time to come out of the construction industry and pass this passion and knowledge on.

“I am thinking of a hands-on way of learning. I might pretend I am the client for example and just get them to open up to different ideas.”

“Once we start to get commissions to build houses, they will be able to do it for real,” Jess adds.

New Meaning has built 12 houses so far, while 12 of its former students are now employees.

‘Here it is easy’ – A different kind of school

ALSO READ: Cafe, ropes course, and minigolf approved for Prospect Park activity centre

New Meaning has expanded since its early focus on construction. The work and study course focuses on English and Maths qualifications and getting work experience in a field the student is passionate about.

Callum Simpson, 17, started the work and study course in March 2020, looking to improve his functional skills and get work experience, and is now looking to work in either computing or as a porter/assistant chef.

He said: “I couldn’t stand school. I hated it. I always tried to bunk lessons but here it is easy. It is relaxing.

“I don’t feel embarrassed to ask for help. I enjoy it. Before, I had no idea what I wanted to do but now I have a rough idea.”

Katy Green, who teaches the work and study program, said: “We find something very specific for them.

“We don’t just use a bank of employers. They get a real insight into whether they want to do that for their career. Then they can either go back into education or go into apprenticeships.”

The independent living course, for people aged 16-25 with education, health and care plans (EHCPs), is the third course at New Meaning.

Teacher Zee Norani, who worked for Reading College previously with students with ECHPS, said he “kept hearing about this company called Toolshed”.

After speaking to Jess, he was encouraged to get involved.

He said: “I am so excited.

“It is all about developing life skills and independent living. There are about 14 units, from household shopping to preparing meal, from sustainability to identity.”

The impact

Jess says the social enterprise has students who go from eight per cent attendance at school to 80 per cent at New Meaning and she said around 80 per cent of students go on to further training or a job.

She says being an social enterprise allows New Meaning to keep going to make sure students succeed, as it is able to put extra funding into teaching students from its housebuilding profits.

“A lot of times, educational establishments have to give up,” Jess says. “We don’t give up.”