"What would Richard Branson change if he was the head teacher in this school?"
This is a question I asked recently at a Facework employability training session for children who have been excluded from mainstream school and who felt 'pushed-out.'
"Is Branson successful because his Virgin companies focus on good customer experience?" I asked. "No", said one of the students, "It's because he tries to have fun and do things differently." Some of the students laughed. As customers in their alternative provision, having fun whilst studying was clearly something they recognised was important.
Asking a question about how a successful business leader like Branson would run their school is a good starting point when helping young people think about the skills, attitudes, flexibility and resilience they will need when they leave school. Indeed many of these young people I talk to are fascinated about what skills are needed to make money. Darren, one of the 14 year old students who had been quiet and withdrawn in one of the recent lesson, suddenly piped up,
"I could be earning £60 a day working with my dad right now, if I wasn't in this dump. He says he will teach me to be a plasterer and he needs me because he has tons of work on right now."
For a variety of complex reasons, many of these students taught in Alternative Education feel they have already failed when it comes to education. But just because their experience of mainstream test-prep schooling hasn't been right for them, it doesn't mean that they won't be successful in a nurturing alternative education setting, especially if these centres focus on preparing young people now for the future changing world of work. Indeed I would argue that for many of them starting work earlier could be the best thing for them. To be accepted in a non-academic, real world environment, to grow up with colleagues at different stages and ages, to receive value through a wage, to be given responsibility; all of these things can contribute to a wonderful learning environment, especially if you need to escape from a chaotic home life. It's just a pity that most schools don't have the staff or space in the curriculum to help give these students a clear line of sight to work, nor really value the enormous benefit that experiencing work and connecting students to work whilst at school can give a pushed-out learner.
Recent research produced by the Employment and Education Task force, showed that 14-16 year olds from all backgrounds, could be earning an additional £2,000 by their mid-20s simply through greater exposure to the world of work through career talks at school and engagement with employers .
However few schools prioritise this interaction and even the work-experience placement is not mandatory anymore. Indeed those schools which do offer it often have to rely on parents to find the placements. What does that tell us about 'who you know' as you climb the rungs of the social mobility ladder? Just imagine asking your parents to find a placement for you if your parents themselves are unemployed. Even the number of 16-17 year olds combining work with full-time education has been decreasing steadily since 1998 when around 40% of students did a Saturday job. Today, numbers of young people engaged in part-time work has dropped to 23.7% of girls and only 13.4% for boys.
If young people aren't earning while they are learning, get taught vital employability skills or receive effective career counseling at school anymore, where do they gain the valuable soft-skills needed for the hard challenges in the changing world of work? And these changes are going to be particularly hard for those who aren't in the 'sharing' or 'gig' economy. When you don't live in an Airbnb rentable house, when you don't have a car to Uber, where your once prized manual labour skills are only valuable down the gym. This will be the future pattern for freelancers in this generation, especially as they will have to earn into their 70s!
In 1964 a committee of scientists and social activists sent an open letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson arguing that
"the cybernation revolution" would create "a separate nation of the poor, the unskilled, the jobless," who would be unable either to find work or to afford life's necessities
Like many commentators before and after, they were perhaps in danger of over-exaggerating the short-term impact but underestimating the long-term impact of technology. But the long-term is now upon us and by the time these young people are in their mid-30s the world of work will be at a 'tipping point'. Computers and automation replacing boring, repetitive and easily learned jobs, driver-less cars and delivery drones replacing white van man and globalisation eroding the bargaining power for many workers - especially those in low paid jobs today. So could we be in danger of creating "a separate nation of the poor" within work, as we have already done so in the world of education? Will we see young people already pushed out of education, pushed out of the workplace too? Will we witness the biggest growth in inequality since the industrial revolution?
Whilst it is excellent for the Government to prioritise STEM subjects and higher academic standards for those who are academically gifted, we do not see the equivalent investment of money or ideas in the Alternative School sector where teachers do sterling work re-booting aspirations and inspiring those who struggle with mainstream schools. These are the ones who will need to rely even more heavily on soft skills, such as imagination, the ability to apply knowledge to novel or varied contexts, resilience and flexibility to handle the unexpected and adapt within changing teams.
You see whilst most people would agree with Peggy Klaus, an expert in workplace development who says,
"Soft skills get little respect but they will make or break your career,"
few have answers for how we help pushed-out young people (many with behaviour issues, low levels of self-esteem and special needs) acquire and demonstrate these skills. Many of these young people will have to compete with peers who have better qualifications, self-confidence, certainly a stronger sense of entitlement and -importantly - better networks and links with those in work. So how can we help them 'leap-frog' their way over further formal education and into successful work environments?
Given no-one to date has come up with the answer let alone a model, you could do a lot worse than ask the young people themselves to try to codify and interpret what these skills look like to them. And that's exactly what the Facework project aims to do. With funding from Nominet Trust and the Inclusion Trust we worked with 70 students from 6 PRUs over a 2 year period, focusing on de-mystifying what these soft-skills looked like and finding out how young people can gain positive attitudes and mental toughness whilst in school so that they were better prepared for work. The results are a creative, co-designed curriculum of 25 challenges grouped in families of 5 core STEPS skills:
The students helped us come up with the 25 practical 'ing' activities; things employers wanted you to be able to do and which you could demonstrate practically. Things like being good at admitting mistakes, (not easy when you've been told your whole life has been one!) spotting problems, handling emotions, managing time and using initiative. Instead of 'worksheets' we created Challenges; instead of far-off inspirational stories we filmed local young people giving advice to their peers and getting students to rate their mates' skills. Instead of banning social media we collected over 150 examples of apps, films, adverts, songs, quotes all available via social media which can help bring these vital soft-skills to life. These are now all freely available on the facework website, and are cross-mapped to the OCR Employability and Life & Living accreditation which means that schools now have an alternative youth-created curriculum which can lead to a qualification.
Creating these resources within the STEPS framework took time and patience and involved deep learning for both the team and students. But as well as the end product (the learning resources) there are some important lessons that emerged from the process and methodology we used. There is no 'silver bullet' but rather simple approaches which teachers use instinctively in all their education and which can be transferred to employability training. These 5 principles are relevant to educators, employers, and government alike, especially if we have a vision for employability as more than just helping the next generation succeed in earning a living, but rather imagine a world where the work they do gives them real value and self-worth, creating greater equality in our society and supporting cultural cohesion.
1) You cannot teach employability without a deep empathetic understanding of young people and the challenges they face.
Whatever you are born with is normal, and the world children are growing up in, and the one they will start work in, is very different to the world we grew up in. Many of the young people I work with are anxious about their futures, their ability to one day own their own home and their ability to stay in regular employment. Validating the soft skills they use every day in social media, as they organise, negotiate, multi-task, upload, publish and create online. Showing how these existing skills can be refined and transferred to a work context helps give a young person confidence. In trying to help a young person it is easy to suggest a mentor. But don't give a young person a mentor, get them to choose their own. For a start they will have more ownership and it's harder for a mentor to say no to a child!
2) Every young person has worth and potential and whilst qualifications are important, they are not the things which ultimately define us.
Many successful leaders in many different sectors of society left school with little or no qualifications and we need to recognise that for many students they will only be ready to learn when they have grown up and had some first-hand experience of proving that they are a success. Indeed why would you want to spend money (and lack of earning time) studying in your early 20s if you are going to be working till you are 70? Employability sessions need to focus on helping young people find what Ken Robinson terms, their 'element'. How you help children discover this 'element' varies from child to child but helping students identify good questions before settling on answers is a positive starting point. Indeed there are no wrong questions and if you can teach young people the power of asking good questions, especially to people who are in work, you introduce them to a network and possibly an insight into work which helps spark this element into life. As Socrates said, "Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel."
3) Peer learning is key for helping young people acquire soft-skills.
If these soft skills are viewed as informal and hard to measure, then why not use informal creative ways to demonstrate them and instil them in others? The most effective lessons we delivered when developing Facework was when we took young people from one Alternative school to another school to run the employability session. Throwing them in the deep end and asking them to run a discussion about work, or sharing from their own experience of work radically helped change their mind-set. We extended this by using phones to record their advice to their peers. 'Teach once, learn twice' principles came to life and suddenly both those young people doing the teaching, and those adults doing the learning grew. For many of the students the actual activity of travelling to another school in another part of the country opened up a whole new world of discovery. See earlier Huffington Post article on this journey of learning here.
4) Bringing the real-world of work into the classroom can make a profound impact.
Many of the young people I worked with are kinaesthetic learners and need experience in using their hands and exhibiting their skills. Many schools are seeing the value of the 'exhibition' as part of project-based learning activities and running 'high-stake' activities such as a pop-up café, shop or nail bar where students interact directly with members of the public can transform a child's understanding of work. One Alternative School I worked in recently was beginning to get their students to run a large car boot sale within their playground. The practical skills used in running this - to say nothing of the value of parental engagement - could be phenomenal. But there are other ways to bring work into the classroom. Could well-known coffee outlets donate an old coffee machine to all the Alternative Provision Schools and start running Barista training courses for students within school? When I have run Barista training with young people it has been one of the most impactful days of their lives, giving them experience and a foot in to a potential 'gateway' job in the hospitality industry.
5) Schools are already places of work
Students are already picking up important messages about work from within the school and there would be opportunities for sharing the work and helping students prepare for work once they leave. Schools often employ local parents, so why can't they also employ a student caretaker to shadow the school caretaker and receive a wage? Why, when repairs need to be done in schools, can't companies run by parents of children in the school be given preference in pitching for this work? Why can't schools better use their alumni to help students with transition into work? Why can't students be given opportunities to run juice bars, produce business cards, take care of school grounds etc?
Embedding paid work and teaching entrepreneurial skills within Alternative Provision is the next step for the Facework project but it will make only a small impact if we don't see a radical re-modelling of the curriculum as a whole. We need leaders who can embed employability within the curriculum from the start. Lead their schools in collaborating with those outside education and engage students in real world challenges which give a framework for what they are learning. This employability prism gives relevancy, and helps a learner become motivated to learn core skills of reading, maths, coding and the wider soft-skills which I now call employment Intelligences.
So we end where we began, could entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and the Virgin Group branch out into yet another industry and help us re-imagine alternative schools. After all, Richard Branson himself had first-hand experience of struggling in school and left education with no qualifications. If he can rescue our banks, make our trains run on time and start tourism in space perhaps it is time for him and others closer to home to re-imagine a new work-school model.