Who the hell are we helping?

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.Spark+Mettle

Eugenie and Gianni by Big Ben

Entrepreneurship and Social (ugh) Mobility

Eugenie and Gianni by Big BenYesterday I had the privilege of joining in a roundtable discussion on entrepreneurship and social mobility, hosted by Chuka Umunna MP. As a long-time Labour supporter—and daughter of a former Labour councillor—it was a thrill to go the House of Commons for the first time, and I really appreciated getting a glimpse of how the political process works. I went to the meeting with Hannah Smith, one of Spark+Mettle’s core team members, currently studying an MA in Social Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, and Gianni Bolemole (pictured with me above), a young entrepreneur from South London who is a Spark+Mettle co-creator.

The presentation and subsequent discussion raised a number of thoughts. I took the opportunity to speak, and the following is a succinct and better-worded version of what I actually garbled at the time.

“I see that there is a strong link between developing enterprising skills in young people and ‘social mobility’ (or, preferably, social egalitarianism): entrepreneurship is a key route to acquiring the nine soft skills needed to flourish. But I believe that ‘social mobility’ is in fact a crippling goal for Labour’s core values as it perpetuates social stratification and inequalities rather than looking for a more radical solution. There has been much talk today around the teaching of “soft skills” (or “work skills”, “real life skills”, “non-cognitive skills”). Ed Milliband is now countering David Cameron’s happiness agenda with his own resilience agenda, so it seems as though soft skills such as resilience have a place in policy now too. So why limit the measures of success within the prism of social classification? Why not take the impact soft skills to its natural goal—that of human flourishing?”


On the train home, I had time to reflect on many of the great ideas and comments put forward during the discussion. Building on what was said by others, I came up with some more practical policy suggestions that I subsequently put forward to Chuka Umunna in an email. This is what I suggested, and I would welcome comments.

  • Ringfence funding for schools to bring in self-employed/entrepreneurs to be paid to share their learning with young people (a bit like the brilliant Future First model, but paid, and extending beyond school alumni). This could be an adaptation of the flexi-teaching model that exists in some FE colleges and universities— I understand that teacher-practitioners have a real positive impact on students and their aspirations. With the axing of Connexions, this could be a government initiative that can support your progressive vision on a national scale while reinforcing local and community cohesion and (self-)employment. In fact this would have multiple benefits:
    • encourage schools to be porous,  giving less-privileged students access to a wider network of professional adults
    • provide useful additional income for the self-employed/entrepreneurs/freelancers
    • enhance intergenerational and socio-cultural cohesion and understanding within a community, perhaps leading to a greater array of work placement opportunities with students and the freelancers/self-employed/entrepreneurs
    • allow teachers to focus on their subject rather than struggle over providing careers support that is not their area of expertise (when I was teaching, I would have LOVED more professionals coming in)
    • spot and support the enterprising young at an early stage by having outsiders interact with young people without the traditional teaching lens (academic ability/potential exam grade) — self-employed/entrepreneurs would make great talent spotters
  • Encourage young entrepreneurs to crowdfund to raise seed capital for their enterprise, provide coaching at the same time and offer matched funding for those who achieve their crowdfunding target.
    • crowdfunding encourages the development of soft skills such as confidence, communication, creativity and commitment that are so commonly cited as key in entrepreneurial success.
    • crowdfunding also develops a sense of agency: it’s not being given a handout, it’s being given a platform and clearly defined process through which you have to raise funds yourself.
    • crowdfunding is an early indicator of the committed entrepreneurs: it has a 50% fail rate.
    • putting matched funding in place then incentivises young people.
    • providing a coach during this process would be a great way of motivating and supporting young people.

NB there is now an explosion of crowdfunding platforms (often unregulated). I freelance for a social enterprise called Buzzbnk ( that is a crowdfunding platform exclusively for social entrepreneurs and charities and has some of the tightest requirements of any, and redistributes its profits among the social enterprise sector, but not all are like this!

I also had four quick philosophical/ideological/pedagogical points:

  • You CAN teach creativity and other soft skills. To ‘educate’ means to ‘bring out’ (NOT to inculcate) and it is always possible to ‘bring out’ creativity and creative thinking in young people. As Ken Robinson points out in his now-famous talk, creativity is there in children from the get-go, schools are the ones that are killing it. It is possible to bring out other soft skills such as self-esteem, agency and resilience in young people too. Leon Feinstein of Institute of Education found that a sense of personal agency at the age of 10 is more important to life chances than reading skills (as quoted in the ‘Grit’ report from the Young Foundation). Then there’s the Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you are probably right.”
  • Don’t limit research and policy just to the ‘entrepreneurs’: there’s less of a ring to it, but with the rise of part-time and flexi-workers as well as self-employment, it could be an exciting opportunity to openly support all self-employed and freelance and flexi-workers, whether they are the ‘entrepreneur’ or an entrepreneur-enabler (for want of a better phrase). You may have more solid data on ‘self-employed’ than on ‘entrepreneurs’ too, which seemed to have been wrongly conflated. I, for example, have worked freelance for three years, but have only considered myself as an entrepreneur (and reluctantly at that) for one. Many people find stimulating, non-traditional employment and career pathways, the portfolio-careerists et al. Something to be encouraged!
  • Any suggestion of ‘mentoring’ programmes should, in my mind, be approached with caution. If Labour can encourage a less hierarchical, more two-way process to intergenerational relationships then I would suggest this is a progressive way forward. ‘Coaching’ is a better route. On Spark+Mettle we refer to the volunteer professionals as ‘agents‘ and encourage them and the young people to acknowledge the skills and knowledge they have, and how they can share/swap them with each other.
  • There is a positive correlation between social equality and homogeneity that is the less-discussed cousin to the social mobility-equality pairing. To encourage greater social equality, we need to confront the socio-cultural barriers that exist in diverse communities. Creating opportunities for people to interact with those they would not normally encounter on a daily basis is a key route to overcoming these, and out of all we have done in Spark+Mettle so far, one of the most positive experiences for professionals and young people alike.

I hope wholeheartedly that politicians will find ways of supporting the marginalised but enterprising young to find or make jobs that engage them fully and lead to fulfilling, productive, profitable lives—that surely is the optimal end goal (not social mobility…?!).

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.