The Blog

Conversations Into Employment

"What's my line? I'm happy cleaning windows, Take my time, I'll see you when my love grows. Baby don't let it slide, I'm a working man in my prime, cleaning windows"

Cleaning Windows by Van Morrison.

Last week I met a window cleaner. He was wiping the smears off a grimy glass door in a busy railway station. As people barged by and rushed for their departing trains, he remained calm and focused on the task at hand, exhibiting a remarkable pride in his job. I watched him for a while before summing up the courage to talk to him. "I have to do all the windows in this station once every 3 -4 weeks", he told me. "To be honest, I enjoy my job. I used to manage window cleaners, now I've gone back to just doing it myself. No stress, just pride and a real sense of achievement every day."

The circumstance of this encounter was that I was travelling with three work placement students from London en route to running a session with other students in a Pupil Referral Unit in Bedford. "Would it be OK if my students asked you some questions about your work?" I had asked. He seemed surprised that anyone would be interested in his work but agreed and before long, Lucas and Omar (two of the students with me) were deep in conversation with him. "How did you get into this work? How much do you get paid an hour? What skills do you need to do your job? What did you want to do when you left school?"

It turned out that Roger had come from a similar environment from which these students had come. He had been thrown out of school, left with no qualifications and had drifted into a range of jobs and environments (not all of them very healthy). As he shared his life story with the students I could see in their faces that something was clicking. They must have talked for 15 minutes and could have kept talking had our train not come into the station. As we settled into our seats I asked the students, "What did you learn from that guy?" It soon became obvious that it had been the most effective part of the whole day's learning. Why?

Learning can be like that. Sometimes it comes from unexpected sources, sometimes you realise you've learnt something pretty important from the most informal of settings. Sometimes your best laid work-sheets and lesson plans seem pointless.

Everywhere we look people are tweeting and uploading, sharing and using vanity tools on their mobiles to express how much they like others' conversations. But in this age of constant communication, how much of our work as teachers involves helping students to recognise the often profound learning which comes from everyday face-to-face encounters? With understandable concern about the risk of young children talking to strangers on the internet, are we in danger of air-bagging older children and failing to prepare them to have the confidence to talk face-to- face to strangers they encounter every day ? Mark Twain's words many years ago "Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation." are perhaps more apt today than ever before.

The window-cleaner conversation was just one conservation I have had with the students over the last few months as I have embarked on a project to help disaffected, marginalised young people gain a better insight into the 'world of work'. Working with The Inclusion Trust we are passionate about developing a new curriculum to help steer marginalised young people into work before they become NEETs. (Not in Education, Employment or Training).

Indeed what makes this project special is that from the outset we are co-designing the project with students from the target audience. Funded by Nominet Trust, we want to provide real alternative work-related learning activities - including using social media, apps and filmmaking to create a more accessible digital CV and 'vault' for these students, many of whom lack the qualifications, motivation, confidence or real insight into how to go about getting into work.

Since September 2012, schools have been legally responsible for securing access to independent and impartial careers guidance for all their students in Years 9 to 11. However, according to the latest Ofsted inspection into careers guidance for schools , only one in five schools are effective in ensuring that all their students in Years 9, 10 and 11 are receiving the level of information, advice and guidance they need to support decision-making. Furthermore the report states that "Not enough of the schools visited worked well with local authorities to support their more vulnerable students in making choices, including those who had special educational needs or who were disabled. Most of the work focused on ensuring that support was available for vulnerable students after they left Year 11. Very few of the vulnerable young people interviewed were clear about how different career pathways could help them to achieve their potential".

As an employer in my own right, I have had students do their work experience and 2 week placement in my premises, and have seen how even the most committed and motivated children find the transmission into work daunting. How much more so is it for someone who has very low levels of literacy, a special need or really struggles to overcome their past abuse or trauma? In the group I had last week, there were two teenage pregnant mums, a boy with significant ADHD and two students who had zero confidence and self-esteem. There are no quick and easy solutions, but we are already recognising a number of very simple, yet important issues.

The first one which any teacher will tell you is that students often learn better from their peers and real-life experiences than a teacher giving theoretical or abstract advice. It can be hard enough getting confident students to lead or run a lesson, but we have belief in the young people we are working with and have rather ambitiously set up a 'relay race' of students who have undertaken the first workshop to then help us run the next with the next new cohort. Teaching in a PRU can be challenging and students can be brutal to external staff coming in to run a session. However when the trainer is accompanied by other students who are living proof that there is something to be gained , they became receptive, interested, and eager to engage if only because of the presence of other student visitors.

Secondly, harnessing technology to get students to express and 'unlock' their understanding of themselves and their skills is beginning to have significant positive results. Last week we videoed a year 10 student in front of a car with its bonnet up, talking about his love of car engines and why he wanted - despite having no qualifications - to be given a chance to be a mechanic. This will form part of his soon to be completed digital CV and this film may end up being the one thing which opens a door with an employer to give him a chance. Working with another student to describe herself in a word Cloud had a similar effect. She started to smile, as perhaps for the first time she was able to see a screen come alive with 10 key personal skills and qualities. The trick now is to build on these and focus on qualifications and experiences which will let her exhibit these in the child-care industry.

There are no silver bullet answers in helping marginalised young people find a job and we are certainly not claiming that the digital tools and applications we are building for the Facework digital CV project will somehow miraculously empower marginalised young people to get a job straight away. It would be irresponsible of us to allow them to believe that this will be the case. Nevertheless if learning is to be relevant to the new 'swipe screen' generation who ever increasingly inhabit and interact on portable, digital platforms, schools need to model new forms of technology and ask the learner to devise their own ways of expressing and capturing the learning which is taking place. These tools are changing every aspect of our society and we need to better help students use the tools to leap across the divide between school and work.

The final thing we are learning comes back to conversations. When you ask many students want they want to do these days, many reply "Something which makes me famous". It's hard to be famous as a window cleaner, but having spoken to Roger last week I bet there wasn't a happier man on the platform that day. Perhaps one simple thing this project can help schools to do is to help 'earth' job-related learning activities into real conversations with real workers and then use technology to link people up as online mentors. Helping a student to have the confidence to ask a stranger a positive question about what they are doing is hard, especially because so many young people are often asked that very same question in a hostile way with the implication that they should 'move on'.

In our current grades-obessed education culture, many schools are swamped and paralysed to innovate in the area of giving students first-rate, student-centred careers advice. But helping students find, get, keep, and love the job that they will end up doing takes enormous skill, insight and real-world thinking. When was the last time you heard a teacher say "I think you'd love being a window cleaner ?"

As I left Roger he asked for my card. The very next day he sent me a text asking me if he could come into the PRU and help the kids more. "I'd love to give something back to these kids" he said. And we are arranging this. Perhaps the most radical thing about the project could be in allowing wonderful window cleaners to become the school staff and give our hard pressed, exhausted teachers the space to become shiny new learners. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world."

Stephen Carrick-Davies is a freelance consultant, trainer and social entrepreneur.

See for more info.