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Recalibrating the Machine

It is crucial to look out there to turn around the learning if we are to re-calibrate the machine. If we as educators can't be open, radically re-learn from young people and collaborate with others out there to help fashion new digital tools and approaches to transforming the lives of marginalised young people, the queue will continue to be long and the cry that "Education, labour or the machine isn't working" will become ever louder.

In 1979 the UK Conservative party produced a powerful billboard ad depicting a long, snaking queue of claimants outside an unemployment office with the words "Labour Isn't Working." The juxtaposition of apparently real unemployed people (later revealed to be volunteers from Hendon Young Conservatives) with those three powerful words made a lasting impression on millions of voters and, some claim, made a crucial difference to the election and the 43-seat majority won by Margaret Thatcher's party. The not working claim worked. The pun was all it took and the party of the worker was consigned to years without power.

Last week I attended a Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion workshop entitled 'Digital innovation in job search - enabling tools for the furthest from work.' As I listened to the various speakers this poster came to mind and I thought about those at the end of the queue as they waited for that elusive job. One thing is for certain, if it was re-created today, those in the queue would be on their mobile phones or tablets, plugged into music or social media, tweeting or using 'What'sApp?' or BBM to connect to their peers, friends or information networks. Perhaps some of them would even be using these shiny new symbols of our modernity and independence to look for work. How ironic, then, to think that although the lives of claimants have changed dramatically in the past 35 years, the process by which people have to queue up to see advisors or claim benefit, is similar to when the first employment exchanges were built by Lloyd-George almost a century ago.

However there is also a far more startling difference. If that picture were taken for a poster today there would be an increasing number of young people who wouldn't even be in this queue, not even at the very end. For me, working with marginalised and vulnerable young people who have been excluded from mainstream education, getting them to join a queue is a job in itself. It's not only work that isn't working, work-related learning -the process by which we help young people understand what employers (and claimant advisors) want - isn't working for this group. Indeed, a better caption for an updated poster would be, that for marginalised and excluded young people, "Education isn't working " An equally provocative, and generalist claim as the original poster, but is it true?

At the conference we heard about a number of important online job-related learning resources like Plotr , Discoverables, Monster and Represent which are using the latest technologies to shake up work-related learning and give young people new ways of understanding themselves and the world of work. But what about those at the end of the queue? Are technology and sites like these the answers for those who live on a Special Needs spectrum? Those who are shy or school-phobic? Those who have never been shown by a working parent the "look 'em in the eye" confidence trick? Indeed, for marginalised young learners with very low levels of literacy, confidence or self-esteem these platforms can simply reinforce the sense that they are on the wrong side of the door. That's why the Facework platform I am developing with The Inclusion Trust, funded by Nominet Trust, is focussed on those young people who are excluded from main-stream schools and society at large. You see, many of these children have already got the message that the only queue they will join is towards the door marked 'NEET' (Not in Education, Employment or Training.) When you put yourself in their shoes, it's understandable why the task of learning to get a job is so painful. If university kids can't get a job with the bank of mum and dad and experienced CV writing services behind them what hope have they got? Self-preservation kicks in when you are an outcast and the prospect of yet further rejection in joining the back of the queue is a public humiliation too far. Better keep quiet, simply accept the "pre-NEET" label and get your kicks from the street.

Understanding the reasons why most work-related learning isn't working for marginalised young people is difficult. There's plenty of proof that the problem is serious with more than 1 million 16-24 year olds classified as NEET in the UK, but reviewing which training resources and approaches are effective is difficult. First there is such a disparate range of providers including the appallingly-titled "Pupil Referral Units" (PRUs) working with an estimated 37,000 excluded children. Apart from Charlie Taylor's review of PRUs in 2012 there has been very little recent strategic analysis assessing the way these organisations are equipped to innovate and pioneer new models of support for some of the most challenging groups of learners. We do, however, get a glimpse of what is happening in mainstream schools from a recent Ofsted report (September 2013) which pulled no punches in criticising schools for failing in their duty to provide impartial careers advice.

From working in PRUs for a number of years I sense that there is little innovation in this area of work-related learning. For example there appears to be little sharing of effective job-related learning resources, few effective links with employers' groups or job matching services, and little professional staff development in designing up-to-date employment training curricula.

Since September 2012 schools (mainstream or otherwise) have had a statutory responsibility to provide independent careers advice and prepare young learners for the huge changes in our worlds of work. But it is extremely tough on schools, who in our grades-obsessed education culture can easily take the default position that it is only academic grades which create employability. With the fear of the call from Ofsted (head teachers tell me that if they haven't had it by Wednesday they can breathe again till Monday) and their humiliating 'satisfactory' label, is it any surprise that too many schools feel they have to exclude challenging children?


But schools reflect society's wider values and back on the street the "everything everywhere " lie being peddled through the advertising billboards and the more targeted social networking marketing is having a profound impact on the mass consciousness. Many young people believe that they can only be successful if they are popular, in work, famous, beautiful...

Yes, social media platforms provide crowded personal spaces but when did learning ever happen only in total privacy? If only we could take the time to recognise and give credit for the resilience many young people have had to show in dealing with deep trauma, accredit the qualities shown in being a young carer. Or find a way to validate the skills they have acquired in negotiating with, and protecting themselves from, a persistently violent and drunk parent. Don't tell me these are not skills, and not of supreme relevance to a good teacher, not only to help a child know how to set their privacy settings and leave out references to troubled circumstances, but to help a child reflect on the skills they are demonstrating online and show how these core strengths can be re-interpreted and positively expressed for a future employer.


Online social spaces have become more than just personal learning and support networks. For most young people they are just a normal part of life to be used for both personal and professional use. However, why is it that 10 years into the social media revolution there is still such little recognition by both teachers and employers that the core competencies of the modern work place, outlined by the CBI among others, of self management, team working, problem solving, customer awareness, speaking and listening, numeracy and literacy and application of IT are the very competencies rehearsed every day in these spaces? It is in these personalised learning spaces that motivation for learning and engagement is being re-booted, that inquiry is being celebrated, and that the precious oxygen of learning -constant quick feedback - is received and owned because it's from those who matter, peers. Is this not relevant to teaching? We used to say "help a child read ... use a book if necessary!" Good teachers today have to recognise and validate and nourish the learning taking place within these private environments, but how, if they ignore, belittle or block access to these places? This is the new frontier for educators and we need the best teachers to tackle this conundrum and make learning and inquiry relevant right at the intersection where popular culture, social belonging, creativity, ethics, safeguarding and learning meet. It's always been that way, it's just that now it is personal, private and portable online. These disruptive technologies are throwing up huge challenges and distorting the horizon. However, by the time we adults have stopped groping around in the change-shadow these changes cast and become acclimatized to the changing light we may look up only to realise that our young learners have gone.


In his prophetic short story 'The Machine Stops' EM Forster describes a world in which an over-powerful Machine becomes such a mystical entity that humans become wholly subservient to it for their sharing of ideas and knowledge. It is only when one of the protagonists believes that the Machine is breaking down and begins to tell others cryptically that "The Machine stops" that others realise their error and try to connect to a more human scale of living.

When we started the Facework project we thought we knew what was needed within the machine of alternative education. We wanted to engage directly with young people and teachers from PRUs, to co-design and develop a platform though which individual PRUs could work with students to create and share exciting, locally- relevant, work-related learning activities. These would include helping marginalised students to use social media tools to create more effective personalised digital CVs and 'face-work' profiles. Furthermore we would help PRUs recruit online vetted mentors to "nudge" and "poke" young people through 'the machine' giving regular feedback and support through their work journey. But ... and it's a big BUT... we were wrong. The machine is not working because it can't be fired up yet! To that extent our learning is working. Six months into the project we've realised we are wrong and we are returning to the drawing board.

Whilst the effective use of digital technology provides remarkable opportunities to redesign how we address persistent social challenges, it's not just "the technology,stupid!" As Dan Sutch from Nominet shared at the conference, "Social innovation occurs only when there is successful application of new ideas generated at the intersection of insight and invention which leads to the creation of social or economic value". He goes on, "Digital technology has to be coupled with creativity and imagination for how else we might address these issues: risk taking and testing of these new approaches, entrepreneurship and willingness, aspiration, persistence and tenacity, including openness and collaboration." To this list I would add "open-source mentality and emotional literacy." For there is indeed the need for emotion (children with special needs need special people to show them love, respect and trust) but coupled with this, there is a desperate need for us to admit we are failing and with the limited resources we all have to re-negotiate our profession and hunger for making our knowledge more relevant to the life and times of digital learners. In that sense we need to recalibrate the wider 'Machine' of education work-related learning.

Perhaps it starts by not designing new platforms but by collaborating and gaining insight from those in other fields who use technology appropriately and are constantly re-calibrating their practice as a result of what they are learning from the data technology can provide AND others who are working in other challenging fields. So is there anyone out there who :

  • wants to join us at the drawing board and share their work-related learning curriculum in the hope that it will be improved by peer review and classified into an exciting new taxonomy?
  • wants to throw open their assessment data in the hope that perhaps a creative student can better present student progression and data in a startling new data map or infographic?
  • is willing to risk putting a pupil's digital CV up and act as a recruitment agent for them, mediating comments and mentoring?
  • wants to develop a tools by which PRUs map local employers within a five mile radius of their centres? Or perhaps design an interactive ability profiler or a universal job match app for yp with low levels of literacy?
  • wants to help the CBI in creating a more granular taxonomy for open employability standards and help move away from GCSE single grades to a "vector" of grades?

It is crucial to look out there to turn around the learning if we are to re-calibrate the machine. If we as educators can't be open, radically re-learn from young people and collaborate with others out there to help fashion new digital tools and approaches to transforming the lives of marginalised young people, the queue will continue to be long and the cry that "Education, labour or the machine isn't working" will become ever louder.

Stephen Carrick-Davies is an independent consultant, social entrepreneur and trainer. See and for more information.

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