Adult language learning provider, Language for Fun has partnered with Keele University and the Staffordshire Business Innovation Centre to launch a new virtual learning environment.

When lockdown first hit in March 2020, Language for Fun was faced with making huge changes to its existing business model. The company, founded by Jessica Bonnard in Newcastle-under-Lyme, has grown to a successful, national business due to its different approach to language learning.

The concept is simple, to create a fun learning environment where like-minded people could meet, socialise, make new friends and learn a new language at the same time. However, the social element of this model was always key, so when the world went online in March, Jessica and her team had to adapt to make sure their learners could still enjoy their language course.

Before Covid-19, its franchisee language teachers, known in the company as licensees, taught over 2000 learners across the country, exclusively in face-to-face settings.

Plans to grow and incorporate e-learning were already in the making with an expected launch of 2023. Jessica completed a Leadership and Innovation Development course with the Mercia Centre for Innovation Leadership at Keele Business School which gave her the confidence to invest in innovating her business. However, Covid-19 catapulted these plans forward. With the help of Keele University and an apprentice Jessica had already recruited to support long-term innovation as well as a grant from the Staffordshire BIC of 37%, she has been able to launch the new product this month.

Jessica said: “In March of last year I was faced with a decision. If I didn’t react and invest in the VLE I would have left my language schools with no way of delivering their product, which would let many people down.

“Just weeks before the Covid-19 crisis hit the UK, I recruited a part-time computer programmer as an apprentice from Keele University under the Santander scheme.

“With his help, to combat the potential issues that the pandemic and lockdown could bring, we set a stretch goal to create an e-learning platform for our teachers. This enabled them to share our teaching documents online in the space of one month.

“This really helped us to navigate spring of last year and minimise impact. We quickly realised we could harness the same technology to bring the development of the VLE forward by two years.”

The VLE has over 1000 online resources which learners can access from anywhere in the world. Teachers can host interactive quizzes, manage their teaching schedules and run online classes in conjunction with their face-to-face classes if they choose.

The virtual learning product is an extension to the existing business model which is simply to make learning a language fun and engaging.

Jessica added: “When we teach languages to children, we don’t expect them to read from a book and just pick it up. We make it fun and memorable and practice it with real life situations. But for some reason, when people become adults, they’re expected to learn differently. In my experience, I learn better when I’m enjoying myself and so I developed Language for Fun. This way of teaching and learning is at the very core of our business and will not change. “The new virtual learning environment will help to take the business to the next level and strengthen our existing offer.”

The VLE has also been integrated with the bespoke business system for managing enquiries, administration, learners and classes  developed over a two-year period as a KRISP project in conjunction with Keele University. The two systems operate seamlessly so that entire classes can enrol at the touch of a button.

Language for Fun offers French, Spanish and Italian courses around the UK. To find out more visit:

The expression of interest window has opened for employers looking to receive Silver and Gold Award status in 2021 through the Ministry of Defence’s Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS).

The Employer Recognition Scheme, now in its eighth year, recognises those companies that support the Armed Forces community by proactively demonstrating a forces-friendly approach as part of their recruitment process.

Silver and Gold employers are recognised for having supportive HR policies for Reservists and Cadet Forces Adult Volunteers. They work with government-funded agencies to support service leavers and veterans to transition successfully into the civilian workforce. They also actively promote the benefit to business of partnering with Defence through the Armed Forces Covenant.

Our ex-military personnel and Reservists can bring highly valued skills into the civilian workplace, with the Chartered Management Institute estimating their training value at over £8,000. Reservists are given world class training to develop essential core skills such as leadership, management, planning, problem-solving and communication.

Interest in the ERS scheme has grown alongside the number of Armed Forces Covenants signed by businesses. The Armed Forces Covenant is a promise from the nation that those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces, and their families, are treated fairly. At present, 6,200 organisations have signed the Covenant, making public pledges of support to the Armed Forces community to show that they are valued by society.

The West Midland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association (WM RFCA) are on hand to support employers in the West Midland region with their ERS applications. Phil Sinclair, Regional Employer Engagement Director, said, “By offering employment to Service leavers, granting flexible leave for Service spouses and partners before and after deployment, and supporting Reservists, these employers ensure that men and women who have done, and continue to do, so much for our nation are treated fairly. ERS winners demonstrably stand out as employers that truly go the extra mile.

To find out more about the Employer Recognition Scheme, and the criteria and process involved, please email or visit the WM RFCA web page here.

A hybrid External Wall Insulation (EWI) design created by Structherm Ltd has earned them an INCA (The Insulated Render and Cladding Association) award for Refurbishment. The innovative design was created for use in an energy efficiency improvement project delivered by Unitas Stoke-on Trent Ltd.

Unitas, Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s repairs and property maintenance company, initially worked with Structherm on a pilot project to use their Structural EWI system to improve the insulation, structure and overall appearance of twelve crosswall properties in Smallthorne.
Liam Gratty, Head of Asset Management & Investment at Unitas Stoke-on-Trent, said: “This project is one of many great examples of how Unitas and their supply chain can collaboratively provide market leading improvements to the homes of Stoke-on-Trent residents.”
“Not only does this offer a high-quality product and finish, but we are also improving thermal comfort, the living environment and street scene whilst contributing to the Carbon Reduction agenda.”
“This award is welcome recognition for the hard work done by everyone involved.”

The INCA award-winning housing project, carried out on seven properties in Norton, Stoke-on-Trent, improved on the design of the pilot project to create a ‘hybrid’ of the original specification. The structural challenges posed by the old crosswall design and the energy efficiency requirements made for a unique refurbishment project.

As well as essential improvements to the functionality of the homes, Unitas required that the homes were modernised and in keeping with the surrounding area as part of the refurbishment project. Unitas, Structherm and installers, Westdale Group, were able to use an innovative Artbrick render system which matches the appearance of the existing brickwork to ensure continuity across the properties.

The partnership between Structherm as system designer, Unitas as main contractor and Westdale Group as installer was critical to the success of the project.

John Sparrow, a representative from Structherm said: ““It was an absolute pleasure to work with Unitas on this project and we are delighted with the end result. We regard the winning of the INCA refurbishment award to be a result of the real three-way partnership.”

“Each organisation worked closely together from design to completion in order to overcome the challenges, resolve all issues and deliver an exceptional result for the client and, most importantly, for the residents who are delighted with their new look properties and are also looking forward to significant and ongoing reductions in heating costs.”

Mrs Sidley, a resident at one of the refurbished homes in Barks Drive, commented on the impact the work has had on her home: “The team have done such a great job – it looks like a new build house from the outside.”

“I have noticed a huge difference in my heating bill and my home feels warmer this winter.”

Structherm has dedicated the INCA award to long-standing employee, Virginia Walker, who sadly passed away this year.

Unitas continues to develop its partnership working to ensure quality housing improvements and provide opportunities to local contractors. For more information, go to

A national pilot project conducted this year in Staffordshire has produced results indicating that the use of the Facebook Portal device by vulnerable people and residents of care homes, during the Covid-19 pandemic, substantially reduced feelings of separation, loneliness, and isolation.

Beginning in early 2020, at the initial height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the project was supported by NHSX and Accenture, with West Midlands based NHS online medical portal partner – digihealthwell, participating.

The aim of the project was to provide Facebook Portals, a smart device which allows the user to make video calls, to individuals that had become socially isolated, or whose social interactions had been severely reduced due to the restrictions that had been brought in to control the spread of Covid-19.

digihealthwell were allocated 63 Facebook Portals, to be distributed across Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, with a further 119 devices allocated to the Adult Social Care team at Staffordshire County Council, to be distributed across the remaining areas of Staffordshire.

The project focused mainly on providing devices to residents of care homes and supported living environments, along with individuals and families who were shielding. digihealthwell allocated 50 of their Facebook Portals to care homes, while the remaining 13 devices were placed in individual residences for household use.

The deployment of the Facebook Portals was contactless, and the devices were accompanied by ‘how to guides’, in both hard copy and electronic formats, which included guidance on using the integral voice activated assistant, Alexa, and if necessary, technical support from Wavemaker, a community partner organisation.

Shortly after receiving their devices the participants were contacted to ensure the installation had gone well, and that they did not require any technical assistance.

Participants were then contacted on a monthly basis from June to September, to determine their experiences with the devices. The most common utilisation of the devices was for video call conversations with family and friends, with 94% of participants reporting that they had used the devices for this. 19% of the participants also reported using the devices for planned

conversations with health professionals, while 17% used the devices for conversations with social care professionals, and 16% of the participants used the device’s voice activated assistant to provide medication reminders and other self-care assistance.

Staff in care homes that had received devices reported improved outcomes for residents who were able to hear and speak to loved ones for the first time in weeks, with some even reporting that residents seemed to be benefiting more from regular interactions with friends and family via the devices, than they had from less frequent face to face visits prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The devices have also been used in end-of-life care, enabling relatives to see and speak to dying residents, when in person visiting would not have been allowed or possible.

When the Facebook Portal has been used in domestic situations, users also reported improvements in wellbeing brought on by regular engagement with relatives via the device. Particularly when relatives were themselves isolating or shielding, or when these interactions enabled the user to interact with their grandchildren.

Use of the device’s voice activated assistant, Alexa, was mainly reported in domestic households, particularly by people who live alone. In such situations participants were reported to refer to Alexa as a sort of ‘friend at home’. This group of participants reported that the device had had a positive impact on their feelings of separation, loneliness, and isolation.

Additionally, relatives of care home residents were found to have been reassured by the use of the Facebook Portal, as the device allowed them to see their relatives ‘in situ’, rather than just via pictures and videos sent by care home staff.

It was reported that the distribution of the Facebook Portals not only aided in the prevention of social isolation, and assisted in end-of-life care, the devices also helped to build confidence among participants, in the independent use of digital technology. Participants who had previously avoided using technology found themselves comfortably using the devices to communicate with family or interact with Alexa.

Local Project Lead, David Sanzeri, summed up the project’s findings; “What is exciting about the Facebook Portal is that as well as being an excellent piece of kit it shows clearly the terrific beneficial impact the use of digital communication can have on people who would otherwise be isolated”.

This successful pilot study provides encouraging results, helping to set a precedent for the wider introduction of digital technology in healthcare environments.

Deborah Brackstone, Countywide Day Opportunities Manager at Specialist Day Opportunities, (a division of Staffordshire County Council), commented, “At the start of lockdown, we needed to consider how we would offer a service to our service users. The thought that service users and carers would not be receiving any support was a scary prospect. We decided to use Facebook portals as they offer sensory experiences.

Deborah continues, not only do our service users enjoy the virtual interactions, but carers thoroughly enjoy the experience too. At this stage it would appear to be one of the successful adaptations resulting from the Covid-19 challenge. The initial success has excited our creativity and we have more ideas to develop in the future including the use of Facebook portal TV’s”.

The National evaluation of the Facebook Portal Pilot was reported in August 2020; a copy of the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the evaluation can be found here:

Football may have been off, but the winter training coats are on, thanks to Mitten Clarke’s employees. They’ve provided the assist to Blurton Reds FC under 10’s boys and Blurton Ruby FC under 9’s girls teams, who are first to net a win from the company’s Great Ideas Grant.

Award-winning Chartered Accountancy firm, Mitten Clarke, have put £10,000 a year in the hands of their employees, to support great ideas in their local communities. The scheme ensures that the support reaches those smaller causes, that are meaningful to the team and impact the lives of people in the localities they are a part of.

Dad of two, Michael Burgess, Tax Director at Mitten Clarke applied for the lads, whilst Bookkeeper and mum Aimee Calcott made sure the girls were also on target for funding.

Aimee told us “2020 was a tough year for the kids, they’re so keen to play again and in these challenging times it’s been difficult to attract any sponsorship. When we heard about the Great Ideas Grant, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity for Mitten Clarke to share a bit of community warmth with the youngsters.”

Operations Director James Beardmore adds, “Team sports are so important for physical and mental wellbeing, and we recognise that getting youngsters involved has real benefits, not just for them, but for their number one fans – the parents – too. The Great Ideas Grant is the perfect way to ensure our charitable giving is making a difference to the communities we serve in Staffordshire, Cheshire and Manchester. We are keen to give widely and inclusively. We are encouraging employees to look out for opportunities to help environmental, educational, physical and mental health and social development causes.”

In addition to the Great Ideas Grants, Mitten Clarke were busy in the season of goodwill, with employees and associates responding to the shoebox appeal for The Macari Centre in Hanley and Mustard Tree in Manchester. 108 shoeboxes were received with the company donating an addition £10 per box gifted.

The Mustard Tree and Alice Charity were on the receiving end of Mitten Clarke’s recent food donation, whilst The British Heart Foundation, Dementia UK and North Staffs Mind have benefitted from the team’s weekly zoom Bingo winnings.

James sums up “It’s great to be active in our communities, to come together and share with those we’re closest to. We’re really proud of our team for stepping up, and can’t wait to hear their suggestions for the next Great Ideas Grant.”

For further information on Mitten Clarke, please go online to

A Stafford dance and exercise venue is helping brighten-up the north end of the town centre with a colourful display that shows people ‘what goes on upstairs’.

The graphics – showing the spacious facilities offered within the second-floor studio and the types of dances and exercise sessions that it hosts – have been applied to display boards outside the Stafford Street premises.

Studio owner, Nick Gallagher-Hughes, hopes that the move will ‘uplift’ the north end of the town centre and make it appear more vibrant and actively used.

“The premises we occupy had been empty for more than 12 years when we took it on,” he explains “but being on the top floor meant that many people weren’t aware of its transformation from empty office space to much needed facilities for dance, exercise and training.

“We wanted to provide a glimpse of what goes on upstairs – the fabulous facilities available for hire and the types of activities for which they can be used.”

The boards display activities such as yoga, Pilates, ballroom dancing, ballet, street dance, theatre, Bollywood dance and Argentine tango in a colourful montage.

Nick said that he “took to heart” the comments of visitors from further afield who noted the vast number of empty shops and “run down” feel of the north end of the town centre.

“We know that the council has plans to rejuvenate this end of the town but rather than sit back and wait, we wanted to take the initiative and do what we could to brighten up our surroundings, provide a talking point and show people what we have on offer.

“Lockdown won’t last forever and when it is safe to do so, we look forward to welcoming back our schools, their dancers and students, with all the positive impact on physical and mental health that social dance and exercise brings.”

TopLine Studio opened in April 2019 and was open for less than a year when the nation was plunged into lockdown for the first time. Despite restrictions and further lockdowns, the studio has continued to operate when allowed.

It is home to a number of schools and social groups including Stafford School of Dance, Groove Academy, Source Flow Yoga and Meditation, Zest Yoga, Desi Nach, Safe Hearts Training and D-Cubed Training and Development Consultancy.

It incorporates two studios which total more than 170 square metres of space that are available for hire by groups, schools and individual teachers for teaching and rehearsals. Facilities include floor-toceiling mirrors, built-in sound system and wall-mounted ballet barres.

The 848 Group, a leading managed services and IT solutions provider based in Stafford, has been awarded a place on the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) Digital Outcomes and Specialists 5 (DOS5) framework.

The agreement (which replaces the existing DOS4 framework) is designed to simplify the procurement and delivery of digital solutions and services for public sector organisations, by providing buyers access to a list of pre-approved and compliant suppliers. Appointed suppliers, such as the 848 Group, will have demonstrated themselves to have the right capabilities to facilitate digital transformation in the sector.

After the framework goes live on 20 January 2021, public sector bodies and organisations, including local and national government, the NHS and police, will be able to access services from the 848 Group via the following lots:

• Lot 1: Digital outcomes:
Team based services, including security, service delivery, software development, support & operations, and testing & auditing.
• Lot 2: Digital specialists:
Individual services, including business analysts, developers and architects.

The 848 Group has over a decade of experience in planning, building and running intelligent solutions. The company boasts an extensive list of industry leading accreditations and partnerships with global giants, including Microsoft and Google. As a distinguished supplier of business changing IT, the Staffordshire based Managed Services Provider (MSP) has predominately delivered transformations to private sector organisations, from Small and Medium Business (SMB) to large enterprise.

The business has experienced significant levels of growth over the past 18 months, and with a heritage firmly rooted in Stafford, they have utilised this period of growth to recruit and develop local talent. As of December 2020, 848 had increased their YOY headcount by almost 85%, with plans for further recruitment in early 2021.

During a difficult time for job seekers, this has provided people in and around the Staffordshire area an opportunity to join a growing business and build their career in the industry.

CCS recognise 848’s growth and proven capabilities

Prior to being awarded a place on the framework, 848 underwent the rigorous vetting and review process outlined by CCS. This ensures buyers are purchasing from reliable and compliant suppliers.

Being successful in securing a place on DOS5, means 848 has proven their ability to build and deliver a range of services and solutions, and will now be able to extend their offerings to organisations, such as the NHS. This will strengthen their position within the public sector, and new customers will be able to experience first-hand the excellent customer service and robust methodology the 848 Group are recognised for.

“We are delighted to have gained a place on the Digital Outcomes and Specialists 5 (DOS5) framework and are looking forward to strengthening our relationships with public sector organisations. The public sector, and the NHS in particular, is in the midst of an incredibly challenging time and we are proud we are now able to increase our support to these valued institutions, by providing IT solutions that make a positive difference.” – Kerry Burn, CEO of the 848 Group

About the CCS Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework

CCS is the biggest public procurement organisation in the UK, assisting organisations with billions of pounds of spending each year, while enabling them to save time and money by securing the best commercial deals in the interest of taxpayers.

The Digital Outcomes and Specialists 5 framework is designed to help the public sector buy, design, build and deliver bespoke digital solutions and services using an agile approach. This supports the delivery of the Government Digital Strategy, by giving public sector buyers easy access to suppliers with the right capabilities, providing a flexible and speedy route to meet customers’ digital project commissioning requirements.

Much like the DOS4 agreement, customers will be able to browse and access solutions and services online via the Digital Marketplace. The framework launches on the 20th January, and will run for 12 months, although this may be extended for any period up to 12 months from expiry of the initial term.

If you are a local business or public sector organisation looking for trusted support with your IT solutions, or to learn more about the services and offerings the 848 group can provide, please contact the business on or call on 01785 503 848.

Sustainability remains a top priority for over a third (37%) of businesses, in spite of Covid-19 recovery and profitability concerns. New research reveals that organisations are even prioritising sustainability ahead of preparing for hard recession, growth plans, and managing post-Brexit challenges.

The survey of over 250 senior decision makers with responsibility for green initiatives across public and private sector organisations by leading UK ICT solutions provider, Stone Group, found that almost half (45%) of businesses have decided to take sustainability more seriously, while for 32% it continues to be a big focus.

Of the respondents that said their organisation was already implementing environmental initiatives, 53% said the main driver was ethical beliefs, and 41% cited cost benefits. The supply chain topped the list of green areas of focus for almost half (46%) of organisations, followed by facilities (39%), logistics (37%) and IT estate management of ageing hardware (36%).

The driving force behind these different initiatives appears to vary: 37% of respondents said their organisation have set up a ‘green task force’ to drive environmental change and a third said their organisation had appointed a sustainability manager. The research showed that sustainability efforts are typically led by or contributed to by those in senior management positions. Three in five respondents said their CEO was involved in their organisation’s green initiatives, while over half have managers (53%) or heads of departments (51%) involved.

The survey findings also indicate that organisations are starting to take a more sustainable approach to their IT estates, with 59% claiming to purchase refurbished hardware, and 31% claiming to use an IT asset disposal service. However, one in five respondents said they still send their old IT to landfill.

“It’s incredibly positive to see so many organisations taking steps towards becoming more sustainable. In fact, our research showed that the majority of respondents place sustainability even higher up the business agenda than preparing for recession, growth plans, and managing post-Brexit challenges,” commented Tim Westbrook, director at Stone Group.

However, the research shows that there appears to be a disconnect between the number of organisations that claim sustainability is important to them, and those taking real, effective action. 34% of respondents claimed a lack of resource is preventing them from moving towards their goals, while 31% said the cost of investment in initiatives is too high.

However, Stone Group believes that excessive resources or investment aren’t always needed to make effective sustainable change.

Westbrook continues: “A sustainable approach to IT hardware purchasing and disposal is an area that should not be overlooked, and one where fast and widespread change is crucial, as 53.6 million metric tonnes of global e-waste was generated just last year alone.

“To help tackle this challenge, we’ve recently launched our Stone 360 e-waste recycling app, designed to make it easy for organisations to arrange collection of their redundant IT equipment, receive rebates, and have a tree planted on their behalf. All items are then taken to our dedicated IT asset disposal (ITAD) facility where they are securely recycled or refurbished. The app is designed to be quick and easy for organisations to use, while helping to significantly reduce their carbon footprint.”

Find out more about the Stone 360 app here.

Funded training to fill skills gaps

NJF Brickwork are a construction company based in Stafford. When the company was approached by PM Training offering funded training for their workforce through the Skills Support for the Workforce (SSW) programme, it was just the support the business had been looking for.

SSW is a programme developed to upskill employees within small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Stoke and Staffordshire. SSW provides recognised accredited qualifications and bespoke training courses to enhance employees’ skills, increase the competitiveness of businesses and boost the local economy.

It is a mandatory requirement for all construction site workers to carry a CSCS card, and in order to obtain this card workers need to hold a relevant NVQ qualification. The training was carried out by PM Training, one of Serco’s network expert training providers chosen to deliver the SSW programme, and as SSW is co-financed by the European Social Fund and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, NJF Brickwork were able to access the training at no cost to the business. Employees achieved the Level 2 NVQ Diploma in Trowel Occupations (Construction) (QCF).

Company Director Nathan Foster explains why they accessed the funded training:

“I knew it would help our business as it would allow our employees on to more sites and allow us to tender for more work. We had support from the beginning with a member of PM Training’s partnerships department coming out to help us fill in the ‘sign-up’ paperwork on the Training Needs Analysis (TNA). The key focus of the TNA was our company goals, and to give an insight into our business. It helped us to realise the skills needed for our employees to become fully qualified. My employees were motivated as soon as they were told about the funded courses which would allow them to become fully qualified and to have increased responsibilities.”

Nathan describes how employee training has benefited the business:

“The programme met the needs of the business perfectly. The assessor liaised with my employees and met them at a time and place that suited them due to work commitments. It was very flexible, and the qualification was what they needed to further their careers and impact on the business. The service has benefitted our business greatly. We now have 2 extra fully qualified bricklayers able to work on site now with no issues which has meant we have been able to take on more work. We have one more on the course which will benefit us further and we are hoping to use the [SSW] service again in the future. They have progressed in work with added responsibilities since completing the qualification.”

If you want to enhance your business performance, improve profitability or simply invest in your employees’ personal development, get in touch today:

A Stoke-on-Trent glazing company is celebrating its 10th birthday in a year which saw them land their biggest ever public sector contracts.

Central Glass & Windows has continued to grow even during the pandemic, taking on two new apprentices in 2020 and will be actively seeking further qualified installers in the coming months.

Founded in December 2010 by father and son David and Gareth Dunn and their two business partners Dean Simpson and Adrian Mellor, the Hanley based company recently won a contract to fabricate and install 350 aluminium Windows and doors at a primary school in Wednesbury, West Midlands.

Central Glass & Windows work across the UK in the domestic housing, commercial and public sector markets. Recent large contracts have included new windows and doors for car showrooms and shops. The company also has a 24 hour a day maintenance call-out service for companies and the public sector within a 25-mile radius of Stoke-on-Trent, with clients including a major fast food chain, councils and retail stores.

Based at Millennium House, Broom Street, Hanley, Central Glass & Windows has continually invested for growth, in recent times investing in CNC machinery to ensure in house precision manufacturing of aluminium windows.

Gareth Dunn said: “Having our in-house manufacturing capability has ensured that the company has continued to move forward. We can ensure that we always have the right aluminium frames made to exact specifications whenever needed and no longer have to rely on external suppliers.

“Our fitters also work with uPVC and wooden frames, so that we can meet all customer requirements. We are continually looking to innovate, offering new products and focusing on customer service. New products for 2021 will include aluminium roof lanterns. These are ideal for flat roofs, letting in more light and giving the impression of additional space.”

To find out more about Central Glass and Windows, please go online to