The inspiration for a Top Careers Fair for our students came to me soon after I arrived at Tottenham's Haringey Sixth Form Centre from teaching jobs in more privileged parts of the capital. I saw that we had really talented, intelligent students who were hungry for success, but many of them simply weren't getting the breaks they deserved compared with the ones I had taught before.
So I decided to do something about it. Our Top Careers Fair has attracted national and global employers from across law, finance, technology, government, and media and creative industries, including the BBC, Google, the Arts Council, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Freshfields and the Ministry of Justice, to name just a few.
The middle-class students I had taught before could rely on family connections and parents in the professions to point them in the right direction and secure invaluable work experience. By contrast, our students are far more likely to be dependent on the careers advice they have received at school. A recent report by schools inspectorate Ofsted is only the latest to flag up the fact that many schools simply don't have the necessary expertise to provide the advice that young people need.
I hope some of our students will be offered work placements as a result of the contacts they make on the day. A study by the Education and Employers Taskforce revealed that young adults who took part in four or more activities with employers went on to earn an average of £23,100 by their mid-20s, far more than their peers without the same opportunities.
The Top Careers Fair isn't about trying to give our students an easy route to the top. We firmly believe in the message that they need to work hard to achieve. This is about giving our young people the opportunity to network with prestigious companies, raise their career expectations and learn how to 'sell' themselves to potential employers. Many lack the confidence and soft skills to approach companies of this calibre, so we're bringing the companies to them. We hope that the participating employers will go on to provide mentors for some of our students, creating an enduring relationship that can make a huge contribution to future prospects of success.
Our students need to learn how to be in the real world and to know what's really out there in terms of potential opportunities. We want to push them to widen their horizons - literally as well as figuratively.
Many of them are reluctant to explore the world beyond their own familiar area of north London. Just as most won't want to leave the capital when it comes to choice of university, few will have their sights set on a career with national or global companies. It's for this reason that we've made the conscious decision not to include local employers in the fair. We have excellent relationships with a number of Tottenham-based businesses and many provide invaluable employment opportunities for local people. But on this occasion we want our students to look beyond the bottom of their road to a world they have little experience of - and which many don't even know exists.
With a 98 percent A-level pass rate this year - a record for the college - many of our students go on to top universities, but we have to overcome that fact that even after graduating they may still lack the confidence to aspire to highly competitive careers such as law or finance. It is not ability that they lack; they simply don't know what it's possible for them to achieve in those environments.
And I don't believe that the current imbalance of opportunities is going to change any time soon, so we have to help students gain access to what's rightfully theirs. For me, the summer auction of internships by top independent Westminster School typified what we're up against. The placements, with, among others, Coutts bank, top law chambers and media stars like Mary Portas, were donated by parents and friends of pupils. We simply can't call in favours like that for our students. Their parents tend to work for local employers in Tottenham, and many are unemployed.
While some of our students adopt a typical teenage swagger and seem full of confidence, it soon becomes only too clear that they're not. They need to feel valued; too often they don't. And I've found that a little encouragement goes a long way. After a recent visit to the college from iconic fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Ozwald Boateng, one student told me: 'This makes me feel really special.'
I want them all to feel special. They deserve it.
Zara Collis is programme area manager, Art and Design, Haringey Sixth Form Centre, Tottenham. http://www.haringey6.ac.uk/