Why are social enterprises thriving in the UK?

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Media captionAndy Bradley runs a social enterprise that trains nurses to be compassionate

Social enterprises use business methods to tackle problems in society and despite the austerity, many are thriving with twice as many reporting growth last year as conventional businesses.

Andy Bradley is selling compassion to the NHS. Dominic Boddington is selling hope for difficult pupils to schools. They both used to work in the public sector but have decided that to improve public services you need to be in business.

They have set up social enterprises - businesses that have social change for good as their primary motive rather than profit.

Frameworks 4 Change was set up by Andy Bradley to sell compassion training to healthcare providers, including the North Essex Partnership Foundation Trust, the first NHS body to commission him.

He grew up in a care home run by his parents and was shocked when he started working in the NHS himself and found not all nurses were as compassionate as his mother had been.

Free thinking

So he set about devising a training course teaching a series of habits nurses can adopt to make sure they are always compassionate, regardless of how busy they are. Nurses that are not compassionate enough should be sacked, he believes.

During the course he teaches which body language to avoid, how to listen properly and why it is important to care for your colleagues.

Image caption NHS staff in Colchester, Essex, are the first in the UK to receive compassion training

It is proving very popular with a team of dementia nurses in Colchester who have had several months training.

"It's so powerful," says senior dementia practitioner Leigh Rippon. "The response from one of my male patients was that it felt like he was being cared for by a friend rather than just a technician."

Andy Bradley's ambition is to change the culture of nursing entirely and there is certainly a gap in the market for that.

Last month Prime Minister David Cameron said "the whole approach to caring in this country needs to be reset" if we want "dignity and respect" for patients.

But Andy Bradley says that change will not come from within the NHS:

"There are certain cultural norms around who does what and how things get done that tend to get broken down when you're in another space, people are less limited in their thinking.

"It's not that there isn't some really great thinking in the NHS and local authorities, it's just that sometimes it's really difficult to release it."

In their controversial Health and Social Care Bill, the government envisages a greater role for social entrepreneurship in the NHS. Successive governments have promoted it- Tony Blair mentioned social enterprise in his very first speech as prime minister- and it continues to grow.

In the last month alone a new social enterprise academy has opened, the government has announced £1m funding for young social entrepreneurs and a major bank has agreed to fund 500 grants worth up to £25,000.

'Rocky patches'

Social enterprises are also bucking the gloomy economic trend. Last year 58% of social enterprises grew compared with 28% of mainstream small and medium-sized businesses.

Celia Richardson, director of campaigns at Social Enterprise UK, says social enterprise is thriving because economic times are hard.

"They see opportunities in market failure, so these are the perfect conditions for the social enterprise sector.

"It's a win-win situation because we're looking for sustainable growth. Social enterprises spot the social problem and the social opportunity first but they use business methods and create wealth to solve them."

Celia Richardson admits that social enterprise is not immune to the economic downturn - especially those which are reliant on public sector customers, such as Respect 4 Us.

It was set up in 2010 by two teachers, Dominic Boddington and Liz Easton to provide alternative education for teenagers in Norwich who had dropped out of school or were at risk of being excluded.

A number of schools send their most difficult pupils there. They have 38 students on their books at the moment, but public money is tight and some months Liz and Dominic do not know if they will get paid.

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Media captionRespect 4 Us provides alternative education for teenagers in Norwich

"We've really jumped in and followed our beliefs and hoped it would work," says Liz Easton, "and it has worked but there are rocky patches. It's a bit scary sometimes but you have to have that commitment.

"It would be lovely to crack the web around all these grant structures and to have some help but not at the cost of our independence, because if we had to bend our thinking to meet somebody else's expectations we wouldn't be us."

Their approach is "education on the sly" combining map-reading skills with bike-riding, numeracy with woodwork, and literacy with cookery.

The teenagers and adults prepare and eat meals together and the staff are constantly giving encouragement - even though often all they get in return is sarcasm or bad language.

It seems to be working. At the end of last year all of the teenagers they had worked with went into further education or training.

Sixteen-year-old Levi has been going to Respect 4 Us for over a year after dropping out of school, which he says was a "waste of time."

"This is the only place I haven't been kicked out of. I was class clown at school. If a teacher told me to do something I'd just lash out and wreck the classroom but Respect have straightened me out.

"I have more respect for them than I ever had for my teachers and I've learned more here than I ever learned at school."

Dominic Boddington agrees with Andy Bradley's view that truly innovative approaches to public service are only possible when you are outside the system:

"The great thing is that we are completely free to decide for ourselves how to deal with particular situations. We're free of the national curriculum, we're free of targets, we're free of people looking over our shoulders all the time. It's an utterly fantastic place to work."

Follow The World Tonight's series of reports on social enterprises, weekdays at 22:00 GMT on Radio 4 from Tuesday 21 February or online afterwards at the above link.

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