Teaching is not like parenting

There’s a storm raging in Britain at the moment. I’m not talking about St Jude. I’m talking about the argument about whether or not teachers should be qualified when they go into the classroom.

I went into the classroom as an unqualified teacher. I was one of the early Teach First teachers (’04 cohort, as it’s know). It was great for me: I got paid from day one, I felt as though I had responsibility, and even when I was in one of the ‘valleys of despair’, I had this a deep, quasi missionary zeal that I was a good person doing a difficult but good thing. Hashtag holier than thou.

But the kids I was teaching? They were under the impression that I knew what I was doing. They had at least one term (or a third of their year) of being taught English —a subject whose grades are kinda central to career success (whatever we feel about exam systems here) — by someone who was half drowning. I was enthusiastic but sloppy. I didn’t follow up. I didn’t cross-check my lesson plans with every learning objective. I didn’t differentiate well enough. I didn’t give the appropriate formative feedback that would really have helped each of them move forward.

I was lucky to be in a great school with a fantastic head and a strong staff of talented, experienced teachers. They guided and supported me when I failed and they made me a far better teacher. I must have been hard work.  I still value everything I learned from them; it was through them I appreciated how much teachers need to know and how much they need to do in order to be effective.

Because teaching is not like parenting, Anthony Seldon. Parents don’t look after 30 kids at once, for a start. Most parents also have a vested interest in the (few) children they do manage. And parental accountability is a whole different species.

The “teacher X factor” is not just “passion and intellect.” I would argue you don’t need to have a shining academic brain yourself in order to be an effective teacher (I disagree with at 2:1 or higher degree for trainee teachers). Passion is critical, of course, but passion needs to be accompanied by an appreciation for methodological working. Teachers who don’t follow through are teachers who don’t help students learn. And the real “teacher X factor” is hard-won experience and dedication—neither of which are demonstrable in the first few months or years.

Of course learning to teach when you are removed from a classroom doesn’t make sense. But most university-led teacher training courses spend a good portion of their time in schools. The difference is this: responsibility for the learning of scores of children is not immediately dependent on the enthusiastic rookies that get parachuted in. There is a slow, steady transfer of responsibility while the rookies are supporting and learning from established, experienced teachers—both at the chalkface and in the staff room.

Six weeks’ training didn’t cut it for me. I left teaching after two and a half years for lots of reasons, but principally because I had  a lot of questions around pedagogy and social and cultural ramifications within classrooms that hadn’t been addressed during my training, and I didn’t have the time to answer while I was working. So I abandoned my post and went off to do a Masters.

It still doesn’t seem right to me that I was the one who learned the most while I was teaching. Who’s to blame for that? That’s easy: me.

Designing education #2: democratic principles

Today there’s a TEDx event at the Houses of Parliament with a focus on rebooting democracy. I’ve been asked to speak at a spin-off event at Hub Westminster with the Education Foundation.

It’s the perfect reason to think about the next mapping I want to do for looking at education design. How would we apply some key democratic principles if we were doing it from scratch?

First up, the principles. There are a few. Here are thirteen, that I lifted from lawandemocracy.org:

  1. CITIZEN PARTICIPATION
  2. EQUALITY
  3. POLITICAL TOLERANCE
  4. ACCOUNTABILITY
  5. TRANSPARENCY
  6. REGULAR FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS
  7. ECONOMIC FREEDOM
  8. CONTROL OF THE ABUSE OF POWER
  9. BILL OF RIGHTS
  10. ACCEPTING THE RESULTS OF ELECTIONS
  11. HUMAN RIGHTS
  12. MULTI PARTY SYSTEM
  13. RULE OF LAW

I’m going to keep this mapping thing simple, and take the first three of the above thirteen, outline what they entail, and how it could be applied in an education context. A lot of schools are engaging in this approach already. Which is neat. Even though I’m not a massive academies fan in principle, I do love what the UCL Academy are doing.

Definitions are all taken from lawanddemocracy.org

1. CITIZEN PARTICIPATION

One of the most basic signposts of a democracy is citizen participation in government. Participation is the key role of citizens in democracy. It is not only their right, but it is their duty. Citizen participation may take many forms including standing for election, voting in elections, becoming informed, debating issues, attending community or civic meetings, being members of private voluntary organizations, paying taxes, and even protesting. Participation builds a better democracy.

How this can be applied to education: empower students to be active participants in shaping and curating what they want to learn, as well as becoming an active part of the school. Enable them to understand how to express their opinions, debate issues that affect them and their communities both in and out of the classroom, and take a proactive role in creating a school and an ethos that benefits them and their peers. More than just school councils.

How this can be applied to classroom teaching: this is easy! Down with the textbooks and the copying from the board. Out with the desks. Boom.

2. EQUALITY 

Democratic societies emphasize the principle that all people are equal. Equality means that all individuals are valued equally, have equal opportunities, and may not be discriminated against because of their race, religion, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation. In a democracy, individuals and groups still maintain their right to have different cultures, personalities, languages and beliefs.

How this can be applied to education: provide schools with equal and fair resources to support students, particularly those who come from less privileged circumstances, so that schools enable everybody to fulfil their potential by the time they leave compulsory education rather than just a few.

How this can be applied to classroom teaching: Make equality a fundamental tenet of every interaction in a school. Devise a range of activities that support multiple learning styles and that encourage the development of a range of skills, talents and interests equally, not just the academic ones.

3. POLITICAL TOLERANCE 

Democratic societies are politically tolerant. This means that while the majority of the people rule in a democracy, the rights of the minority must be protected. People who are not in power must be allowed to organize and speak out. Minorities are sometimes referred to as the opposition because they may have ideas which are different from the majority. Individual citizens must also learn to be tolerant of each other. A democratic society is often composed of people from different cultures, racial, religious and ethnic groups who have viewpoints different from the majority of the population. A democratic society is enriched by diversity. If the majority deny rights to and destroy their opposition, then they also destroy democracy. One goal of democracy is to make the best possible  decision for the society. To achieve this, respect for all people and their points of view is needed. Decisions are more likely to be accepted, even by those who oppose them, if all citizens have been allowed to discuss, debate and question them.

How this can be applied to education: reestablish a genuinely comprehensive system that enables young people to interact with a diverse range of peers from as young as possible. Make schools porous, enabling local communities, businesses and individuals to engage with them.

How this can be applied to classroom teaching: Build opportunities for students to design and debate the learning objectives and outcomes that they want, while being respectful of the diversity of opinion. Teach consensus and compromise, as well as confidence to express own opinions.

Finally, here’s what I’m saying at the panel today. I’d love to know your thoughts.

I only became seriously interested in politics myself when, as a teacher in a south London school, I saw first hand the chasm of opportunity that exists in this country. What young people end up doing, or not doing, has nothing to do with their actual capabilities or potential, and everything to do with the lottery of circumstance.

 

There are four key issues at play that have an impact on young people’s engagement with the democratic process, especially marginalised young people

    1. In school, dissonance between what they are studying, what they need, and what jobs and education they will be able to access.
    2. Whenever you leave school, there are few jobs available—over a million young people are still unemployed
    3. “Soft” skills or aptitudes are rarely taught in schools—so the young people who don’t have effective, empathetic role models, are the ones who are failed.
    4. The UK has some of the worst levels of social mobility in the developed world—4% of policitians and business leaders come from one school in this country, Eton.

If we want young people to participate fully in, rather than to protest strongly against, society, then we have to prepare for a major social and cultural shift.

    • We need to involve young people in the democratic process, and to make that involvement feel authentic rather than photo-oppy.
    • We need to design an education system that empowers teachers and students to explore what is important and relevant to them; making them feel connected to society rather than cut off from it.
      • Students discuss issues and concerns and hopes
      • Teachers help them to connect these to wider societal patterns
    • We need to create opportunities for intergenerational and cross-class communication and collaboration.

It’s understandable that there’s a tendency for a lot of people just to look out for themselves, if they live in a society that doesn’t seem to look out for them. If we want young people to engage with democracy, we first need them to experience the benefits of being part of a positive, empowered, effective community—one that is both respectful and respected.

 

In other words, we need to start by making strong ties stronger.

 

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that the optimal group size for stable stable interaction and collaboration is 150 people. Where’s a community that size to be found in this country? On a street, in a block of flats, in a school year, in a pub? If we want to reboot democracy and engage young people, I suggest that’s these are the places where we start.

Designing education #1: the double diamond

I’ve had some insanely inspiring, illuminating and thought-provoking conversations this week. And recently. In general. I may be about to head back to a world of beans on toast, but this kinda nourishment from these kinda colliding ideas will somehow keep me going. A bunch of conversations I’ve had with tech heads, inventors, game designers, investors and a whole heap more have brought me back to look afresh at an old question that’s for a long time been bobbing about in my head:

How do you design an education programme?

I’m in the process of reviewing and refining and redesigning the elements of what we do with Spark+Mettle. I want to spend the next few weeks taking a non-educator approach to looking at education design.  Not from a sweeping policy level, but from the grassroots/chalkface/blackbox level. I’m excited to consider game theory, behavioural economics, investment analysis (and any others—suggestions?), but today I’m going to kick off with mapping a straight design process.

I’m thinking an education mash-up bonanza. Bit like this:

I’m not an expert in any of these things, so this mashing attempt of mine will be light-touch. But it’s my way of trying to keep a fresh look at how we can teach and how we can learn, whether we’re in a classroom or far beyond it.

I’m not a designer, but I have worked and studied education for close on a decade. I can tell you the difference between learning aims and objectives, how to differentiate and scaffold to support learners’ individual attitudes and abilities, how to maximise the use of different activity types, how to set up neat evaluation criteria. I can think long term, mid-term, short-term. I can knock out a lesson plan and the worksheets or whatever other tools are needed to make it work. I can figure out ways to enable learners to progress and to understand how and why they’re moving forward and getting better.

Eugenie teacherI was once a classrooom teacher.  Teachers do cool shit. I have infinite, infinite respect for them. (I was a good teacher in some ways, but flakey in others. I was Miss Broad Strokes rather than Miss Meticulous. That’s all fun and good when you’re up at the chalkface; but it’s the behind-the-scenes, red-pen work of careful scrutiny and clear feedback that really makes the difference. That was not where I shone. It’s good I’m not teaching any more.)

When I taught, we had some schemes of work within the department that we could adapt and use, but we were also encouraged to develop some of our own that could be shared with and adapted by others.  Different schools work in different ways, but I’d imagine that this would be fairly common practice across the UK.

So if you ask a classroom teacher how to design an educational project (an overarching scheme of work, or individual session/lesson) from scratch, I’m guessing they’d ask questions such as:

  • What are the desired learning outcomes?
  • How do we break these down into aims and objectives?
  • What activities could we set up that would enable these aims and objectives to be met?
  • Is there a good mix of whole-class, group, pair and individual activities?
  • Is there a good mix of teacher-led and learner-led activities?
  • What else needs to be included to support the high-achievers and the low-achievers?
  • Is the assessment criteria clearly linked back to the aims and objectives? Will I know whether or not they have achieved them?
  • How does all this link back to the national standards?

And I’d add: would I want to be a learner in this lesson? (Aside: so funny how teachers are encouraged to set up active learning opportunities, but are often taught to do so sitting at tables in rows in a stifling room.)

Lesson plan

That’s how I reckon classroom teachers tend to design education projects—but hollar at me if you think different. The progressive approach allows for as much learner freedom (with suitable scaffolding) as possible—a space where learners feel as though they are learning for themselves and growing, rather than a space in which they feel as though they are being force-fed information, fois-gras like. I’m a big fan of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development on this.

Good teaching is an art as well as a science. Yes, best practices are based on centuries of psychological research—behavioural, developmental and cognitive—plus decades of advances in neuroscience. But however much we might try to breakdown an excellent teacher into his or her constituent parts, there’s still some stuff that can’t be rote learned,that instead is acquired through empathy and experience, adapted by an individual to fit their character and personality.

What I’m interested in now is how we can map design theory to education. Is there anything that educators can learn from how the design world designs stuff?

The Design Council shares its design approach on its website. They call it the “Double Diamond” design process model.

Design council design process

“Divided into four distinct phases, DiscoverDefineDevelop and Deliver, it maps the divergent and convergent stages of the design process, showing the different modes of thinking that designers use.”

I’m just going to go straight ahead and lift what they write by way of explanation.

Discover
The first quarter of the double diamond model marks the start of the project. This begins with an initial idea or inspiration, often sourced from a discovery phase in which user needs are identified. These include:

Define
The second quarter of the double diamond model represents the definition stage, in which interpretation and alignment of these needs to business objectives is achieved. Key activities during the Define stage are:

Develop
The third quarter marks a period of development where design-led solutions are developed, iterated and tested within the company. Key activities and objectives during the Develop stage are:

Deliver

The final quarter of the double diamond model represents the delivery stage, where the resulting product or service is finalised and launched in the relevant market. The key activities and objectives during this stage are:

What I find SUPER-INTERESTING is that, for the majority of classroom teachers, designing lessons or units of work only focuses on the second part of the “double diamond” process. They dive right in at the ‘brief’ stage, they’ve already been given the criteria (by Gove almighty) of what they need to teach, and they’ve probably had direction from exam boards/head teachers/department leads about how to teach it.

So when it comes to the person who is standing in front of the classroom, teaching the 28+ kids, the one who knows these kids better than anyone else—their input and insight only comes in the final stages.

And when it comes to the kids, the ones who are meant to be doing all the learning and realising their potential—their input and insight comes after this whole “double diamond” process is over.

And if you look back at the double-diamond, one of the first things to happen in the “discover” stage is market research and user testing.

What do we learn from the design process? We should be getting the learners involved in the education design process RIGHT FROM THE START.

We should be testing our joint assumptions, collectively, from the beginning, rather than fois-gras-ing our opinion down learners’ (and teachers’) throats, o Gove.

There are a huge number of things I miss about teaching, and there are a gazillion things I admire about the education system that we have, and there are a number of things I’d like to say to politicians who hold young people’s futures in their pale, limp hands.

Here I’ll just say—decentralise THIS. Put down the workbooks and syllabuses, and put into the hands of learners and their classroom teachers the ability to discover and define what they want to learn and what they want to teach.

Classroom

At Spark+Mettle we talk about the importance of having a sense of agency—a sense of control over your life and choices—and how it is one of the nine strengths that is central to flourishing. Nowhere, I feel, is this sense of agency more important than amongst our future generations as they sow the seeds of their aspirations, and the badass adults who are nurturing them as they grow.

Look at me, I’m getting all Dewey-eyed. Boom boom.

Eugenie Teasley's talk on Flourishing

A Good Manifesto

Eugenie Teasley's talk on Flourishing

Live-scribed at A Good Week launch

I had the honour of speaking at A Good Week launch on Monday. The last time I gave a big talk on flourishing when I was teaching in Elephant and Caste—that Year 9 assembly was not quite such a captive audience as the one I faced this Monday.

Here’s what I said at A Good Week’s launch event:

Good Manifesto by Eugenie TeasleyOut of all the statements I made in my Manifesto, Nat and the Good Week crew decided to emphasise one in really big letters: TALK LOTS OF NONSENSE.  I guess I’m grateful, as it has set the bar fairly low for my talk. And it’s actually pretty useful, because although I’m going to be talking about the link between education and flourishing, right now I am just going to ask you to think about a horse.

Got a horse in your head? Good.

An ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, also thought a lot about horses.  He had a theory of Ideal Forms, and he used a horse as an example.  According to him, reality consists of two realms. First, there is the physical world, the world that we can observe with our five senses. And second, there is a world made of eternal “forms” or “ideas”: perfect templates of things we actually observe. All the horses we see in the world or imagine in our heads are imperfect representations of the Ideal Horse, but they all have elements of ‘horseness’ that allow us to recognise them as horses.

Horseness of horsesI don’t entirely agree with Plato and where he takes his argument. But I do like thinking about the ‘horseness’ of horses, or the ‘chairness’ of chairs, the ‘houseness’ of houses—the attributes that make us recognise and categorise things around us. So makes the ‘humanness’ of humans? Or the ‘Eugenieness’ of me?

I think that we are each able to hold in our heads and hearts an ideal version of ourselves. I think that flourishing is all about discovering and then bringing to life these ideal versions. And I think that we can all do that for ourselves, and for other people—and to me, that is what education is all about.

Spark+Mettle is an aspirations agency that likes to help people flourish. I founded it a year ago, hoping it would be one small way of enabling the marginalised young to follow their passion, fulfil their potential, find a job they love and feel good about what they do.  It’s still small, but it’s the melting pot of things I think are vital in life. Today I’m going to talk about the ‘sparkandmettleness’ of Spark+Mettle: flourishing and education. What’s the link between the two? And what can we do to enable ourselves and others to flourish?

What is flourishing? 1. But first, what is flourishing?

There are hundreds of definitions. And here I’ve selected just three. I wonder which strikes you most forcibly? The first is by a contemporary psychologist called Fredrickson. The second is Aristotle’s working definition.  For me, the third is the most compelling—written by a historian, called Coco Corr, who is 19 years old and one of the co-creators on Spark+Mettle’s Star Track programme. And yes, I am slightly biased.

It’s all very well to have a general idea of flourishing, but it’s useless and inapplicable if you don’t know what it might actually entail.

The Flourishing FeaturesThankfully Cambridge researchers have discovered nine features needed to flourish – three core (the must-haves), and then six additional—the more of which you have, the better. What depresses me even more than the fact that only 11% of the UK population have all nine, is that the wealthiest are twice as likely to flourish in this country as the poorest.

One thing I feel strongly is that flourishing is as personal as we are different, and it’s okay to adapt ideas to what fits your ‘youness’. And that’s what we’ve done over the past year at Spark+Mettle. We’ve morphed Cambridge’s nine flourishing features into our own nine flourishing creatures.

Spark+Mettle's Flourishing CreaturesWe’ve kept purpose in as one of the ‘must-haves’, and we’ve renamed engagement ‘spark’. We’ve pulled out positive emotions and relegated them to the additional pool. And we’ve thrown mettle or resilience in there instead. We bundled optimism into positive emotions, and made space for creativity—something we’ve found is vital to flourishing.

 

So there’s our recipe for flourishing, which may or may not resonate with youBut how do we go about teaching it? We have been running our pilot programme, Star Track, since September 2011. It’s a personal and professional development programme for aspiring young people, that blends online and offline reflection and interaction. Here’s a short video, with a very loaded question at the start:

2. What is education?

Flourishing is a concept I’ve been fascinated by for a decade since studying Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia  as an undergraduate. But education is something I’ve been fascinated by for as long as I can remember.  I was given an expensive but in many ways crappy education: always working to the test, never being asked to think for myself. I’ve always been curious and eager to learn: and that is nothing unique to me, far from it—it’s a natural human tendency. It’s something I see, relish and nurture in my own 20-month old son.

I’ve come to realise that the tendency in each of us to inquire is matched by the tendency to encourage, and that if we are given the opportunity to do both: to find things out for ourselves, and also to encourage others to do the same, we are in a good, ideal-formy, humanness sort of place.

I’ve been a classroom teacher, in Elephant and Castle. I’ve stepped back from the chalkface to do a Master’s in Education out in Berkeley, and I’ve worked for educational organisations both here and in the States, including the brilliant 826 Valencia. And after all these years of looking at education from different sides, hammering out lesson plans and essays, I’ve remembered something very simple. To ‘educate’ doesn’t mean to ‘indoctrinate’, to ‘stuff full of other people’s ideas’, or to ‘prep for the test’. No. To ‘educate’ just means ‘to bring out’.

Star Track logoStar Track—Spark+Mettle’s flagship programme—is trying to do just that. We wrap it in fancy language. We call it an incubator programme that shapes, supports and accelerates the emerging talent in marginalised young people. That’s a nice, meaty sentence, but all we should really need to say is that it is an education programme. Because really, that’s all we are trying to do, to bring out the best in the young people with whom we work.

Star TrackHow do we do that? Well, our approach is a little unusual because we do a lot of our communication online. But the three core elements that, to my mind, are vital to a successful education programme are there. Firstly, we encourage our young people to reflect and think for themselves through our Socratic-like discussions that we run through Google+. Secondly, we encourage them to interact with others—both their peers and professionals. And thirdly, we encourage them to create something new: whether that’s a blog or brain balm…

3. What can you think and do to flourish?

Underpinning every conversation we have is this idea of flourishing and its nine features or creatures. By now, eight months into the programme, our co-creators have all got a strong sense of how they can change their thinking in order to flourish and fulfil their potential. These are some great examples of how to change our thought processes and link them to actions, all suggested by them.

How to flourish

The problem for the rest of us is that sometimes it’s hard to get our thinking and aspirations off the ground. That’s where another Spark+Mettle project comes in: the Dreamers’ Supply Company.

Dreamers' Supply Company logoIn this project, young people and professional volunteers are co-creating dream-realising products, such as this brain balm that will, um, ‘salve’ all your problems—albeit in a whimsical, imaginary sort of way.  So far, so awesome. The process is allowing young people to develop their creative, collaborative and enterprising skills, while connecting with inspiring professionals.

 

And the final products will enable others to set about realising their dreams too. In fact YOU are able to decide which of our prototype products should be made and sold through the Design Museum shop this September, by voting on A Good Week’s website all this week.

We’re lucky to have friends like A Good Week and the Design Museum shop to help us out. But the essence of the project is something that’s simple to replicate. And, ultimately, pretty unoriginal. We reckon that it is easy, and fun, and ideal-form-y, to repurpose or repackage something inconsequential into something aspirational. We just happen to be doing with tiger balm what Blue Peter did with toilet rolls.

We can alter the way we think and we can alter what we do to improve our own levels of flourishing. In fact, there are an infinite number of recipes for flourishing, and these are changeable and complex, they adapt with you along the tracks of your life. So if you were hoping for me to give an infallible three-step route from who you are to your ideal form, I’m afraid I can’t.

But I can do something.  I can distill the essence of flourishing into three things we can do to help us to be real-world educators, and to begin to bring out the best in others.

Enable others to flourish

  1. Encourage others to reflect, not ruminate. Ask them to tell you one good thing that’s happened. There’s always something.
  2. Encourage others to interact—in a fair and equal way. Get them to swap what they know with you.
  3. Encourage others to create things. Whether it’s bangers and mash or brain balm, get them to make stuff, preferably with you.

Ask good questions, trade skills and ideas, set up make days and craft nights—these are simple ways to bring out the best in others and in ourselves.

A Good Week is chocabloc with just such opportunities. So I hope we all get involved with some of what’s being celebrated, because it’s good stuff like this that can help us to step closer to our ideal form, to flourish and to enable others to do so too.

eugenie_teasley_good_manifesto_horseAnd if you’ve got this far, you’re a hero. As a prize, here’s my Good Manifesto, framed, with my prop horse, on a train.

 

Evolution of men

Screw social mobility

In recent weeks there has been a fantastic upswing around programmes and ideas to support struggling young people find engaging education and employment opportunities. And there’s been a neat connection to digital technology in the mix too.

For me, it’s a particularly exciting time. I’ve been ruminating on and sandboxing ideas and iterations over the last twelve months, and with the Spark+Mettle team and co-creators, we have come up with some findings that might be useful for others who are now attempting to support young people fulfill their potential both online and in the real world.

I wanted to put down some thoughts I’ve had on routes forward for supporting young people that have surfaced after a number of news stories on latest the research and policy strategies circulated in the UK last week.

A quick note on our approach to our work.

In many ways, Spark+Mettle is an intersection, a joint, a broker between two or more different groups or approaches or spaces. When it comes to how we work, this connecting holds true. We work in a spirit of praxis: taking findings from the worlds of academia, research, theory and policy and applying them to our programme structure, delivery and evaluation. This is our process. And this means that although our core mission and vision is steadfast (that we want to help people flourish, especially young people; that we want the UK to be happier, more cohesive, and egalitarian), we acknowledge that our approach to achieving this is not fixed, but adaptive and responsive to the changeable circumstances young people find themselves in.

Four key routes to providing support for young people

1. Help get the foot in the door where families have no access

An interesting blog post from Miles Corak, a professor at the Univeristy of Ottawa, highlights the importance of the inheritance of employers in Canada and Denmark—even in these socially mobile countries up to 40% of young men have worked for employers that their fathers also worked for. “[Our research] raises the importance of recognizing that child outcomes are related not just to the quality of the early years, but also to the structure of labour markets, and the resources parents have—through information, networks, or direct control of the hiring process—to influence the final transition children make in becoming self-sufficient and successful adults.”

What then for the young in the UK whose parents are either unemployed, or employed in jobs that the young themselves do not want to follow? More youth organisations need to find ways of brokering relationships with employers. There are some exciting examples already that work within the school system (such as Future First). But for those young people who are not in school? We do what we can but we are a small potato. A very small potato.

2.    Provide enriching, extra-curricular support for all young people.

There are many chasms of opportunity between the young who have easy lives in the UK and those who do not. Arts organisations have long supported young people and provided inspirational projects to those who can’t afford to attend expensive after-school activities. With funding draining away from state schools, teachers are left with even less to provide high quality support to all young people. I agree with the Deputy Prime minister when he suggested last week that universities should take students from less privileged backgrounds with lower A-levels. Tim Hands, chair elect of the Headmasters and Headmistress’ Conference, did not. In fact, he accused Nick Clegg of “old-style communist creation of a closed market” and suggested that such an approach is tantamount to “capping the achievements” of privately-educated students.

He is wrong. With just 7% of all students at independent schools, the country should not revolve around nor hinge on their achievements. We need to build strong partnerships between arts groups, schools and other youth organisations, online and offline, so that the vast majority of young people in the UK are able to access enriching, extra-curricular programmes.

3.    Enable the development of soft skills and social skills

A key piece that emerged from the Work Foundation’s ‘Lost in Transition’ report last week is that there is urgent need to support the development of soft and social skills in young people who are about to enter the jobs market. The report highlighted the growing number of “customer-facing” occupations. It also highlighted the fact that no experience of paid work creates a substantive barrier to finding more work. For young people to get their foot on the first rung of the jobs ladder, they need to be equipped with the soft and social skills beforehand. And although explicit soft skills coaching is a good way forward, it is often exposure to a number of different (supportive) social and professional settings, and the gradual realisation of how to respond to them successfully, that can lay strong foundations for individuals’ personal development.

4.    Inform about emerging employment trends, growing occupations etc, entrepreneurship

All young people should know which sectors are growing and which are in decline so that they can begin to make informed choices. So share the knowledge.  According to ‘Lost in Transition’, the growing sectors include:

  • professional
  • managerial
  • associate professional
  • technical
  • caring
  • leisure
  • service (but not administrative or secretarial)

It’s also important that young people know what their rights are, about internships (it is illegal for organisations not to pay regular workers). And about other employee rights too. In fact, the Beecroft report published last week was a useful reminder of employee rights, principally because it included “a bonfire” of many of the traditional ones. Among these was the suggestion that it should be easier for micro-businesses to fire people at will.

A final note on social mobility:

Evolution of men

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced a set of ‘social trackers’ to measure fairness in society, to monitor the impact of the Government’s policies to tackle social mobility every year. It’s an interesting idea and one that may just begin to hold the government to account more quickly and with greater effect. But who knows.

In my mind, the routes mentioned above and Spark+Mettle’s whole approach tries to veer away from improved social mobility as the ultimate goal. It’s a fine line to distinguish, and I often find myself using the phrase ‘social mobility’ as shorthand for the sort of work that we do, because if I start harping on about egalitarianism and pride I end up on a soap box, talking mostly at myself.  But I think it’s important to stress it here because a lot of the routes suggested could be seen as ways of plugging the social capital gap or middle-class ‘upskilling’ for the less privileged. That is not what I intended.

For there to be any sort of sustained, systemic social change in this country, if ever there comes a time when we become less precious about class and more open to flexible, non-hierarchical structures, right now we need to create spaces that encourage diverse groups of people to meet, interact and learn from each other—online as well as offline.

This should be happening in schools, but the fracturing of the education system means that the differences between rich and poor, privileged and not, are widening further still. This should be happening in universities, but the ghosts of school ties linger still, especially amongst Russell Group universities. Those, like Tim Hands, who suggest that allowing less privileged young people to enter universities with lower results is tantamount to capping the achievements of the privately-educated, are wrong. By the time young people sit for their exams, there have been close on eighteen years of discrepancies between the privileged and the not: discrepancies that can ring through the exams. It’s not unlike challenging two kids to get to the examination room starting off at different points. One has to walk through sunny meadows, with a clearly marked map, food on demand, and a host of people to give advice, guidance and support. The other must wade through mud, in fog, with few people to direct them to where they need to go.

People can’t flourish in mud.

I believe that good youth initiatives should not be about helping young people to become more socially mobile or supporting a few ‘exceptional’ young people get a leg up on the social ladder. Instead I’m keen on getting rid of the idea of the ladder altogether. We need to think about success in new, lateral ways. Why should success only be measured in terms of strength of academic achievements, or distance travelled when climbing up out of the working class? Why not measure success instead in terms of level of pride about who they are, what they do, where they are from? Forget exam results, sod the colour of their collar. Screw social mobility.

People can’t flourish in a vacuum. I want to find ways of bringing people together from diverse backgrounds to listen to the ideas of others as well as to share their own, to offer opportunities for insight and experience, and to do all this in a spirit of openness and curiosity rather than rigidity and conformity. That’s what we’re trying to do through Spark+Mettle, albeit on a teeny-tiny scale. And if others are doing this too, then I am thrilled. Let’s forge on.