A few days ago I overheard a conversation between two mothers. One of them had a daughter who took her GCSEs last summer and needed work experience before starting A-Levels. The other’s son is to take his GCSEs this summer, and the work experience shadow already looms large. The first mother, let’s call her Elsie, took initiative and ahead of her daughter’s work experience created a CV on her behalf detailing her schooling, predicted grades, ideal careers and areas of interest, numerous extra curricular activities, and a fetching photograph. She then sent it as an email attachment to all her friends all over the world, seeing if any of them would take her on. The daughter ended up in an art gallery in New York. There she was asked to help with some mail-outs, and had to stuff some envelopes. Elsie was outraged: “Why should she have to have stuffed ENVELOPES?” she exclaimed, “Why couldn’t they let her do the fun stuff, like curate or be out front?”
The second mother, let’s call her Dina, suggested that it’s a good thing for teenagers to experience that sort of thing. She then started thinking about the possible options for her son who’s interested in acting. I suggested a community theatre in the town where they live. I got the distinct impression that anything less than the National Theatre won’t be quite good enough.
The conversation made me furious. To expect your child to be offered serious responsibility when they’re 16? Dementing. But equally, to suggest that tedious manual labour is character-building? Condescending. To want the best for your child? Understandable. But to imply that your child deserves better than other children? Divisive. Snobbish. And wrong.
You can guess that these parents send their children to private school—and not just some poxy, one-up-from-grammar local ones, but the elite type.
Full disclosure: I went to private school. I experienced pretty much all the trappings of privilege. I have happily married parents; I have a glowing academic record from the top education institutions; I am one of the few people under 35 in this country who own their own home; and of course as a white woman I’ve experienced no prejudice in this 85% white country. Yes, some jobs as a teenager and during uni I went and found for myself (well done me): working in a skate shop, working at a bar and a restaurant, plus volunteering for a local record label (where I learned how to make tea) and doing admin work at Oxfam International—if that doesn’t set one up for a Guardian-reading, Birkenstock-wearing future I don’t know what does. But my parents got me work experience too. The first was at the Mail on Sunday, after which I swore I’d never work in an office or for a newspaper. They also got me to shadow a barrister, which helped me realise I could never be a lawyer because I’d always be prone to casting my own judgment on who was innocent and who was guilty. And I couldn’t handle donning a wig and bundling papers to argue over a tin of beans. Those opportunities were golden: I learned more about what I did and didn’t want for my career.
Here’s the rub: when I taught in south London, the kids looking for work experience there mostly had to choose between Boots on the high street and filing for a nice local printing firm. Kids who were smarter than me and kids who had more smarts than me. Why should I be the one to get the national newspaper and the barrister? The school and the teachers tried to find them opportunities. It’s not that their parents didn’t want the best for them, but that their networks tend not to include a newspaper editor or criminal lawyer.
It’s what gets me about this country. It makes me both furious and embarrassed and outspoken and tongue-tied: the social mechanisms through which I personally have flourished are precisely the ones that prevent others from having equality of opportunity and the chance to fulfil their potential. And it’s not that the mechanisms or motivations are bad. Parents want the best for their kids. It’s a universal truth. But somehow the universality of this truth gets lost when it comes to well-oiled parents working the mechanisms for their own kids. Equality of opportunity, I want to tell them, is not a zero-sum game: we could all have more of it.
So that’s my motivation behind Spark+Mettle: trying to create a vacuum in which there is equality of opportunity, where less well-connected youth are able to meet and engage and interact with adults they might never otherwise come across, and vice versa. And where there can begin to be a bit of a cascade effect: these young people then reach further across their peers to share and broaden networks. That’s not my place.
Criticisms have been levelled at me and the organisation that we don’t help the most marginalised. We don’t. We have a fairly open policy about who we accept onto Star Track, our core charitable programme, although we are now looking to turn into a fellowship programme, which would mean we would only recruit unemployed young people in the future. But they all have to be self-starters—it’s an online programme after all, so there’s not the level of support that can be provided through great interventions such as those of the Prince’s Trust or Tomorrow’s People. Worse: Discoverables is a free platform open to all young jobseekers, regardless of background. We’re looking into ways of amplifying those young people on the platform who might otherwise slip through an employer’s net—but that’s a way off. And even if we plough our whole marketing budget into reaching the most marginalised and the dispossessed, we still won’t have the sort of impact or build the sort of relationships that community-based organisations do.
So: we don’t help the most marginalised. We’re not working with young offenders, nor the voiceless, paperless young refugees, nor the homeless. But, hand in hand with young people, we are co-creating materials and programmes and frameworks and principles and a platform that can be used by organisations and institutions working with the hardest to reach. And at the same time we are building up resources and tools that employers can use to feel more confident about diversifying their workforce, and recruiting beyond the usual pool.
Spark+Mettle is not the greatest organisation. It is small and flawed. It’s a tiny potato, with black spots. It is not the panacea: we won’t create equal opportunity in this country. But that’s not to say we won’t have a crack at it all the same. I want Spark+Mettle to become the global heavy hitter for the soft stuff: offering insight and interventions and opportunities for millions of young people to build their character strengths and soft skills and networks. And in the meantime, I want to get some of our young people internships at art galleries and the National Theatre too.