Published: 06:00, 16 July 2021
| Updated: 09:51, 16 July 2021
A college which works with young adults with special educational needs has opened a supermarket on site to give students valuable work experience opportunities.
Oakley College in Tonbridge opened the mini Tesco store in partnership with the supermarket as a way of supporting those who may otherwise face additional barriers to employment.
It's the first of its kind in the UK and also opened alongside the college's Spill the Beans Café which similarly teaches people about the catering industry.
It means the 18 to 25-year-olds from the college in Cage Green Road take it in turns to serve customers, stack shelves, use the till and price up items, all while wearing a Tesco uniform and gaining independence in a safe and supportive environment.
One student who has loved working in the store since it opened is 19-year-old Daniel.
He works as a cashier on Tuesdays and also prices up products after looking them up on the internet.
As well as having aspirations to be a voice actor, Daniel also hopes to put his new skills to the test by working in a bigger Tesco store in the future.
Last week Daniel even served Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells who visited the college and did some shopping along the way.
He works alongside his colleague Taio, 19, who is an expert in customer service since starting as a shop assistant.
He also hopes to work in a local Tesco store one day.
Jackie Thurtle, project manager at Oakley College, said: "This is a real life Tesco with real products.
"It's a practical way for us to get stock for the café but it's also a maths lesson and teaches our learners about communication, teamwork and self-esteem.
"Other colleges have tried to put in supermarkets in the past but haven't managed it for various reasons and we know Tesco were talking to other people but they chose us which was really lovely.
"The café opened at the same time as Tesco and the idea is to eventually have it open to the public so they can come in, buy something from Tesco that the learners have made in the workshop, and have a cup of tea."
It is also hoped it will help the students with their independence skills by building up their confidence to go shopping independently and recognising the importance of budgeting and healthy eating.
One side of the store sells everyday food products and the other sells items made by college attendees such as cards, coasters, pots and bathroom supplies.
Those clocking up the hours can use the time as a springboard to Oakley's and Tesco's Launch Disability Programme.
It is a two week programme with a dedicated Tesco buddy in a real position, in a real store.
Students go through a screening and selection process and clock up experience in the store before going into the launch programme.
The Spill the Beans Café offers a similar initiative focused on working in a kitchen environment.
The new facility provided the perfect opportunity for 21-year-old Cleo, who loves blogging about cake, to learn about what it's really like to work in the industry.
She said: "I tidy up, make sandwiches and hot cross buns, biscuits and cakes.
"I like the café so much it is my life.
"I want to work in the Cake Shed, in The Pantiles."
As part of their role, people like Cleo will create a food menu to send out via email at the beginning of each week.
Then they will go shopping to buy all the ingredients and produce needed for that week before preparing the foods.
While it is not yet open to the public, the community café offers a space to meet friends and for local groups to book meetings and socials.
The head of the college, Ros Leach first came up with the idea of opening a supermarket in September 2020.
After speaking to charity Business2Schools, staff at Oakley were put in touch with Tesco and the idea snowballed from there.
The facilities team at Tesco then donated food, shelves, tills, electricians to wire it all in, café furniture, coffee machines and cooking equipment to ensure it has everything it needs to run its own shop and café.
Oakley's chief executive Gordon Tillman said: "We have a whole range of people here and we feel all of them can get employment in one way or another.
"Our young people have got character, enthusiasm, they have got immense loyalty and a great range of skills so the Tesco store in particular is a brilliant way to show that.
"We absolutely believe it is a first in the country and if we'd had the space, Tesco would have helped us put in a full supermarket which is far larger but hopefully we can develop the outlet in the future.
"People think our learners can't do things but this is evidence that they can. What they will get from Tesco and the café is the preparation they need to be a contributing citizen when they leave Oakley College."
Oakley College is a registered charity and opened less than three years ago with just 10 students aged 18 to 25.
Now, it has 73 young adults attending which will rise to nearly 100 in September.
Jo Drewitt, Head of Development Programmes at Tesco said: “We are proud to be part of this important project to help Oakley College students build skills and confidence that will help them for many years to come.”
While the store and café are already up and running, Oakley hopes to officially open the sites with a special ceremony on September 29.
Oakley has also started a 'Hit the Road campaign' and is hoping to raise enough money to convert a van into a mobile Spill the Beans Café to take to community events.
Students are doing their bit by walking or running to clock up sponsored miles with their pedometers.
So far they have raised £1,252 of their £9,000 target.
To find out more and donate, click here.