Taking the first steps to overcoming some massive cultural, historical, public policy and institutional barriers to make a difference for young people
I was on a panel for an event that brought together schools, employers and local council officers to tackle the local challenges facing Cambridgeshire’s 14-19 year olds. Of the various institutions represented, it was strange to note that I was a former student of…five of them within the past two decades.
‘How can you play a part in shaping the workforce of the future?’
…was the question – or rather the theme of the late afternoon gathering at Coleridge Community College.
Cambridge Area Partnership is one of those partnerships that, for me has stepped into fill the gap in co-ordination caused by the fragmentation of the public sector. Irrespective of their supporters or detractors, the impact of academies has made it much harder for local government in principle to co-ordinate activities across state schools in their area. It is more than just a schools’ co-ordinating network though – as shown by today’s event that had head teachers, employers and their representatives, local council officials, elected politicians…and Puffles.
The hyperlocal context
This was probably only the second event I’ve been to where I’ve been able to merge my experience in Whitehall with what has happened on the ground over the past couple of decades. Being able to switch instantaneously from a high-level big picture view of things to a detailed view of things on the ground in my neighbourhood was quite a strange experience.
On the panel we had two head teachers – the principals of Swavesey Village College and Cambridge Regional College. We also had Catherine Condie of TWI and Heidi Mulvey, the Community Engagement Manager of Cambridge University Press. Finally there was Grace Bilney, a student at Parkside Sixth Form, along with myself. Part of my remit that I discussed sometime prior with Anne Bailey, the organiser, was to challenge both panellists and delegates in the context of being local, from my experience in the civil service and from my existing community activism work. (Readers new to this blog see my various blogposts on Cambridge here).
The recent local history is important
The reason being is that it helps explain how we got to where we are today. There are two things that strike me about the local history of schools in South Cambridge. The first is that the schools themselves have changed – and on the whole improved immensely. The quality of the teaching and teacher training from my experience is a significant step on from what it was in the mid-1990s. All of the institutions that I attended represented at the event have also undergone significant building programmes, making some of them unrecognisable in a very short space of time. And rightly so given the shambolic state of some of the buildings and facilities.
At the same time, the reputation and cultures of some of the institutions has remained almost stuck in time in some respects. During the early 1990s, I got the impression from local parents that it was not the done thing for adults from polite society to send their children to Coleridge – regarded as a failing school. I had a number of friends from primary school that went there, so was quite pleased to see them contributing to one of the most successful exam results the school had achieved for many years – resulting in me meeting up with many of them at Hills Road Sixth Form College later on.
Speaking to a number of people at the gathering, the culture within affluent middle class communities in Cambridge still seems to be that Hills Road Sixth Form College is the academic gold standard to aim for, and that if you miss that it’s either staying on at school or going onto Long Road Sixth Form College if you were an ‘arty’ type, with Cambridge Regional College being seen as the place where schools sent their no-hopers. Having completed courses at all three institutions I have no idea what that makes me! Yet having attended each of those institutions and also having recently met and listened to staff and students at all three of those institutions, the aged stereotypes no longer hold water.
Challenging those negative stereotypes in local communities
What I thought was great to see was a diverse audience of people with the capacity to make a positive impact standing up to be counted. As far as I’m aware, the three main political parties were represented. We had a couple of Conservative councillors from East Cambridgeshire District Council. From the city, we had Cllr Paul Saunders, the Mayor of Cambridge who was there for the main presentations and the panel, and Julian Huppert who hot-footed it from Parliament to deliver a very powerful keynote speech. One of our local Labour councillors, Cllr Noel Kavanagh was also there too – so many thanks to all of them for coming along. I think it’s important for things like this for the local political parties to come together and visibly show their support – especially to the schools and employers, so I’m glad they did.
Furthermore, we had representatives from both Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities, as well as employers large and small. We also had JCI Cambridge there too – who I can best describe as ‘business people in the community for the community’. (I’m a member too). Would Coleridge have been able to have convened a similar gathering say 20 years ago? Even today, I think there are some parts of Cambridge’s residential community that would be surprised Coleridge could pull something like this off – so credit to Beverly Jones and team for doing so. You proved the doubters wrong!
Onto the very difficult challenge of planning and co-ordination
This was the issue that came up time and again from all of the sectors represented. In and around Cambridge we’re doing some really interesting and innovative things to support young people, but it’s all too ad-hoc and unplanned. I also think we’re reaching the limits of what that approach can achieve. Andrew Daly, the Principal of Swavesey pulled me up on my complaint about the lack of planning, saying that schools are now much better at the longer term planning – which is splendid to hear. I pay tribute to anyone being a head teacher in this political environment, and I say that as someone charged with overseeing the actions of a primary school head teacher in my capacity as a local school governor.
The bit that I was thinking of was both the horizontal and vertical planning and co-ordination. Let me explain.
With schools, there needs to be some input from what local employers – and organisations generally – can offer for free at the planning phase of the academic year. For example when is the best time of year for a given school to be sending its children over to visit an employer? Or when is the best time to offer work experience? This allows for the planning and preparation to be done.
Secondly, there is the perspective of the child’s journey through school. At which point in the child’s journey is it best to have the site visits? To have the speakers coming into schools? Is it early in year 7? Is it just before they select their options for GCSEs? Is it at the end of year 10? What is the best sequencing structure so that the students are exposed to as many positive experiences outside of the school curriculum as possible?
As Michelle Lamprecht from MathWorks explained, you can’t do everything all at once. Better to have a high quality in-depth relationship with an institution and a small number of students at a time than trying to spread your resources too lightly and having limited impact. (Even though Michelle then gave a very comprehensive list of ‘social action’ activities that they do in and around Cambridge).
Planning is also an essential element. Talking to several employers that take on young people with few qualifications, one of the things they said they had problems with was the lack of essential basic skills – in particular team working and communication skills. This is where I pointed them to both the Prince’s Trust Team Program and to the National Citizen Service Programme.
My point being that both those courses do some of that essential groundwork and preparation that school leavers heading straight for the jobs market may not get in school. For the record, I did the Prince’s Trust Team Program a year after graduating. I had been temping on and off but felt I needed a challenge that was not an academic one. Those three months made three years at university look like a walk in the park in comparison. Within a few months of completing that course I joined the civil service, and a couple of years later was on the Civil Service Fast Stream.
This is where you can play a part both as local champions for schools in your ward, and in your role influencing the council corporately to do that essential convening and co-ordinating role. As I mentioned earlier, a number of you are doing some very good outreach work with schools and colleges (as some of you have mentioned here) but it’s all too ad-hoc and uncoordinated.
A long term strategy?
As one of the employers asked me,
“What does success look like?”
Good question. It will be different for different people. For example:
- Schools: Success might be having that outside engagement having a positive impact on attainment/pupil progress while at the same time providing a more suitable challenge for students for whom higher education is not their desired goal.
- Employers: Success might be talent development – bringing through young people in partnership with schools who later go onto become employees. It might also be positive publicity/reputation you get within your local community as a result of the engagement.
- Councils/councillors: Success might simply be making a difference to young people. It might also raise awareness of your role within the community and of people’s knowledge of what councils and councillors can do. And let’s face it, political institutions and politicians could do with a bit of positive coverage.
- Communities in general: Greater interaction between the generations, dispelling some of the negative myths, learning across the piece and a more exciting and vibrant community all round.
Success…how do you get there?
This comes back to the long term strategy. What are the things that need to be done or put in place for the successes to be realised? The event this evening was one of them. 70-80 of us from diverse sectors coming together to discover what we can do to make a difference. Actually for me, it was just as much about identifying the problems and barriers. The next step for me is hosting a series of problem-solving gatherings. A bit like hack days but not so tech-focussed. This is where, through a series of guided workshops, people come together to try and solve the problems. Problems such as:
- What does success look like and how will we know if we’ve succeeded?
- How do we overcome the problem of poor co-ordination?
- How do we do the planning with schools?
- What information do we need? What information don’t we have and where will we get it?
- How do we change the culture on skills within local communities and institutions?
- How do we solve the awareness-raising challenge?
- How do we engage with ‘hard to reach’ groups and to those at risk of falling through the social security net?
Workshops on the challenges above need the input not just from the adults, but from the young people themselves. What does all of this look like through the eyes of a 15 year old?
Leadership and risk taking
You’re dealing with tight financial margins in a tough economic climate, young people, a society hostile to anything that looks like politics, schools and colleges under the Ofsted microscope, and a media that loves a bad news story. What could possibly go wrong?
But then doing nothing also won’t achieve much either. We can do ‘business as usual’ – but then business as usual will be the result. From the energy in the breakout sessions – it’s always the breakout sessions where the interesting conversations happen – I felt a desire from the people there that they wanted to try something radically different. That requires taking some risks, trying to mitigate for them and accepting that some things won’t work. Hence your feedback loops and evaluation on your activities are essential.
What sort of things do I mean by leadership? It means trying to do or change something that might make a positive difference, knowing that it won’t be easy and that there’s a risk that some things might not work out. In terms of specifics, it might be:
- The director/chief executive of an employer committing their firm to the partnership, and making some specific commitments to a school or young people as a result
- A local councillor lobbying their council to help with the co-ordination role
- The local council that creates some simple templates that help those taking part manage the risks which don’t create bureaucratic overload
- The head-teacher who brings in new systems and processes to make it easier for staff – teachers and admin staff to be open to outside offers of help
- The local voluntary organisation that reaches out to schools to invite young people to take part in activities that improve their team building and communication skills – while having fun at the same time
- The high profile politician/MP/minister that can provide the necessary impetus to overcome any major barriers that arise
From the gathering that we had, I felt it was clear that the commitment is there. Now we need to get into some of the specifics around planning and problem-solving. The next gathering – hopefully early in the new year to maintain momentum – I believe needs to clarify what the vision we want to achieve for the different people and organisations taking part. Then it needs to start some scoping work on how we’re going to achieve this.