April 22, 2013 12:43 am

Raising aspirations among Liverpool’s women

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The sound of children at play filters through the windows of Claire Dove’s impressive corner office with commanding views of Liverpool. They are in the playground of the Blackburne House nursery, the first social enterprise she started and crucial to her vision of helping women get decent jobs.

“Both my children went through there. We are on to the third generation among some of our staff and students,” she says.

Now 60, Ms Dove has turned a vision – of providing job opportunities for women, many unskilled and from ethnic minorities – into a multimillion-pound enterprise. The chief executive of Blackburne House says she is honoured to receive a lifetime achievement Queen’s Award in recognition.

Blackburne House retains its core function as a training provider. But it is also a conference centre, café bar, spa and health centre, a base for an all-female property maintenance business and a honey producer thanks to the hives on its roof.

All this is packed into a wonderfully restored 18th-century Grade II-listed building on Hope Street, which links the city’s two cathedrals.

After setting up a women’s training enterprise with EU grants in 1983 in the wake of the Toxteth riots, Ms Dove and her fellow directors set their eyes on the building across the road.

It was gifted in 1844 by the Holts, the Liverpool family who founded the Blue Funnel shipping line, as the first girls’ school in the country.

The selective Liverpool Institute High School for Girls closed in 1986 as comprehensives took hold, and the building lay derelict until 1992. The Women’s Educational Training Trust raised £4m to buy and refurbish it.

“We could expand and we would set up a number of businesses in the building. So we started to talk about social enterprise,” Ms Dove says.

What began as a way of equipping women for work in non-traditional areas such as information technology has evolved into an organisation that encourages many to start their own businesses.

Blackburne House runs the northwest franchise of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, and Ms Dove is chairwoman of Social Enterprise UK, the umbrella body. “The UK leads the way. Everyone wants to learn from us,” she says.

In 2011, Jacqui Johnston-Lynch, who had attended a course at Blackburne House, set up The Brink, a dry bar and restaurant in Liverpool. The alcohol-free venue is a social enterprise staffed by recovering addicts that is supported by Action on Addiction, the charity.

Ms Dove says: “Jacqui said she would never have had the idea if it wasn’t for the course.”

The original aim of Blackburne House was to arrest Liverpool’s economic decline after its docks and car industry laid off thousands of workers in the 1970s and 1980s. Ms Dove, who had lived in the US and worked for Plessey, the telecommunications company, saw talented people leaving the city.

“There was a skills drain. How do you get anyone to invest in the city if you do not have the skills?” she says. “I felt my role was to look at how women could and should be used in the jobs market. They are not transient. They have family ties. They could get the jobs market moving, attract inward investment and spend that money in the local economy.”

The first course was in IT for 30 people. Today, more than 1,000 a year study at Blackburne House, which employs 70 staff, is rated “excellent” by Ofsted, the inspection body, and has achieved Beacon status.

Its work has had a positive effect: Liverpool’s economy grew faster than London’s during the 2000s and billions of pounds of investment have arrested population flight. But the city still has a lower stock of businesses than average and the most deprived postcodes in the country.

Blackburne House has moved with the times. Its latest venture is a health studio, offering beauty treatments and massage, responding to a huge demand.

Ms Dove says: “Celebrity culture has been a big step backwards for women. For some young women, their ambition is getting on The X Factor or being a Wag. We have to give them back the confidence that they can get a good job with a good salary.”

The charity’s marketing head, Lisa Mairah, whose mother found work through Blackburne House, says it has a partnership with the NHS for students to attend to patients in hospital.

Ms Dove fiercely defends the role of enterprise in improving cities: “Social enterprises want to make money. It’s what we do with the money that is the difference.”

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