I’m not normally that controversial am I?

A friend of mine is a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. His daughter is a talented singer and musician. Genetic or home culture? Let’s leave that aside for now! She has sung in choirs both nationally and internationally and was recently discussing her thoughts on her career with her father. He was being supportive like many of us would be, asking what she thought she was good at, what she enjoyed doing, where she would like to end up and so on. Her reply was the most accurate description of a young person’s future outlook on life I have ever heard.

‘I don’t really know what I want to do when I am older but I know the sort of people I want to hang around and work with’

An eighteen year old much more succinct than me!

Her words are absolutely on the money for the way that many young people think. And if this is how many young people think, and they do, how do we translate that into supporting young people into career directions that they will thrive in?

10 and counting!

I am mid way through creating the Bring It On series of films from engineering firms across the NE. We couldn’t have the real event with thousands of primary and secondary pupils from Berwick to Loftus descending on the Beacon of Light in October, so we tried to distil what makes it work and go online. Yes we know that at the event there are opportunities to drive excavators, weld with real sparks and programme more robots than a Star Wars convention but the feedback we get every year is that children loved meeting the engineers. They get to see first hand that lots of different people become engineers and that they are great people to be around doing exciting things. The children take one step closer to including that culture as part of their own. The films focus on the engineers, showing them as everyday people, people you are a bit like and also who you would be happy to work with. Relatability has been top of the list for the outcome of each film and I think we have achieved that by including so many sectors and different personalities.

But isn’t that career guidance?

Yes it is, of course it is – a part of the jigsaw. Showing pupils exciting possibilities and giving them information about the amazing opportunities open to them is really important but I am happy to argue with anyone that it is the human element that really engages them. Crossing that boundary from: ‘Oh that looks really cool’ to ‘That looks cool and is definitely something that I can do when I am older’ works best when pupils meet the people doing that role currently, see that they are a bit like them, see that they could be them. Once that possibility opens in the pupil’s mind, THEN you can start feeding the information about how to achieve that goal.


Well, in some ways we do. What is one of the biggest initiatives that we try and get schools to achieve in terms of career guidance? Speakers in from industry to ‘inspire’ the pupils.

There is a fair bit of evidence that it has an impact too. My argument is that it isn’t simply the aura of the speaker, their mere presence, aftershave or indeed the inspiring powerpoint that has an impact. Yes there is something to be said for actually focussing on the topic and giving it a level of importance but I would argue that it is the personality, the connection to the speaker that makes the difference. Does that Y5 or Y9 sat there staring really have any desire to be like the person at the front and do they believe it is possible? It is definitely a step up from a fact sheet about the career! But how could we maximise those opportunities in a world where businesses simply do not have the capacity to engage every child in every school?


If I believe this to be true, and working with around 50 000 pupils over the past few years, face to face on employer linked activities is probably a fair but of experience to draw from, then what can we be doing better to bridge that chasm between pupils and the mythical ‘world of work?’

I have already mentioned the main thing: connection to individuals. Yes the context needs to show the work that the person does but if a pupil meets or sees an employee and literally thinks ‘Oh they are just an adult talking about stuff’, the ‘what’s in it for me?’ rule kicks in. If the pupil sees the speaker as someone a bit like them or even someone they would be happy to spend time around, then they will engage more readily in the information being shared and potentially the career guidance information that inevitably follows. Getting the right people presented in the right way is absolutely essential. Use of crafted media, child centred media, not dumbed down adult style documentaries potentially allows ALL companies in an area across all sectors to be encountered across a pupil’s school career. That would work even if it was only an assembly a week. Oh I don’t know, a bit like the resources I have been creating on this website!

Couple that focus with raising the importance of engaging with the world of work. Make curriculum lessons refer to real life work linked situations wherever possible. I am acutely aware of the national curriculum objectives in many subjects and I am not going to be stupid enough to suggest that every concept is going to be linked to a real world role or situation without the aid of a huge crow bar. However, the majority most certainly can and making the link gives lessons authenticity. Anyone who has been through teacher training will know the importance of authenticity in engaging learners. Subscribers to this blog will see a real upshift in the range of curriculum linked resources available here over the next six months with a sustained growth beyond that.

Creating an ethos where school is seen as the precursor to a great future of opportunity, rather than a means to an end of passing exams is essential. The more that schools can engage with the world of work and crucially the people who work there, the more likely that pupils will see it as part of their cultural capital, something that actually affects them. To achieve this you start early, in Key Stage 1 and sustain it throughout a pupil’s school career. Once they have that mindset, career advice and guidance has way more impact. The evidence from recent research presented by the Education and Employers’ Taskforce would suggest the double win is that more engaged pupils also do better in exams en route to more economically successful careers. This applies particularly for pupils who are furthest from the world of work, the most deprived socially and economically. Career advice and guidance is REALLY important but only once you have engagement.

Social mobility anyone?

As I have said before on this blog, the answers are actually there in front of us. Research and experience seem to be converging. Businesses and schools are increasingly keen to engage. The problem is that barriers still exist, institutions are slow to change and people have invested time and money into existing systems.

None of that affects Spark Tees Valley. I may have created the most unfundable company in the UK right now (that’s right, I qualify for no support funds and have no income from my usual school support work) but am I going to sit here and whinge when there is such an important job needs doing?

For those who have worked with me in the past, that is of course a rhetorical question. I have fantastic continued support of the local business community and the brilliant schools and teachers who just get on with doing the best for the pupils despite goalposts disapparating, let alone moving. I am not slowing down my efforts to create change. My experience shows what can be achieved with the right support and if plans I have in place come to fruition the Tees Valley will be a world leader in raising aspirations effectively in the very near future. We could be the first place to really put into action what we already know works.

If you would like to help, I’d love to hear from you.