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This week is National Inclusion Week – so what better week to celebrate 15 years of our employability programme. A programme that has improved inclusion at Marks & Spencer, has supported 20,000 people on their journey to work and that has ultimately changed people’s lives – Marks & Start. 

Marks & Start began in 2003 as a small trial supporting homeless people through Business in the Community. BITC supported candidates to be work-ready and M&S provided training, coaching and work experience. The trial was so successful that we decided to extend the programme to other groups facing barriers to work – this then grew to support young people, people with disabilities and single parents.

In 2004, Marks & Start was launched with four programme partners: The Prince’s Trust (supporting young people), Business in the Community (supporting homeless people), Gingerbread (supporting single parents) and DisabledGo (supporting people with disabilities and health conditions). The format remained the same as in the trial – and it’s the same to this day – programme partners provide tailored support to get individuals work-ready and M&S provides 2-4 weeks of work experience, providing training on key retail skills and offering lots of support – including through a buddy. If the placement goes well, candidates can move into a vacancy when one is available, without needing to go through the recruitment process. Recruiting in this way helps us to recruit great people from talent pools we might otherwise miss, and our colleagues feel proud to work for an organisation that supports people in this way. It also adds to the diversity of our workforce with 25% of participants having a disability and 20% being from the BAME community. 

Over the last 15 years there’s been lots of change – from the social issues we need to tackle, through to the vast changes we’ve seen in the retail industry, to the ways in which the charities we work with operate and are funded. Marks & Start has evolved with this change and continues to do so. One of my favourite examples of this is in 2010 when we started working with Remploy as the partner supporting people with disabilities and health conditions. Changing meant we were able to go from supporting 150 people a year to around 700, but by maintaining our relationship with DisabledGo (now AccessAble) we’ve been able to work with them to produce accessibility guides for all of our stores

Another great example of change is how in 2013 we responded to the high youth unemployment rates by launching a tailored Marks & Start programme for young people with The Prince’s Trust, supporting 1,400 young people every year. This developed into Movement to Work, launched by M&S, Accenture and BAE Systems – now a coalition of employers committed to tackling youth unemployment. This Movement has supported 80,000 young people and through this we’ve worked with some of the most amazing people – such as Stacey Fox who won The Prince’s Trust Celebrate Success Awards in 2016. To show our continued commitment to this programme, we have recently signed up to Valuable 500 – a global movement putting disability back on the business leadership agenda.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is how locally we have used Marks & Start to support re-generation programmes, we have led tailored programmes supporting care-leavers, individuals with learning disabilities and ex-offenders. We’ve also had amazing success with our Logistics scheme. And no stat makes me prouder than the fact 90% of participants report that Marks & Start has helped to improve their confidence.

As a business we are proud of how far the programme has come – from a small-scale trial to one of the biggest employability programmes in the UK. We are privileged to work with such brilliant programme partners and speaking on behalf of the hundreds of people that deliver this programme in our stores and offices every year, we are humbled by the opportunity to meet such resilient and inspiring people who are now valued members of the M&S family.