Monday, 17 January 2011

Reaching for the top

One of these days I will write something purely factual. This isn't it, for which I'd apologise, but I never made any pretense of this blog being a bastion of well researched evidence, instead it is for the telling of experiences and observations, thoughts and the things which are unclear.

Elsewhere on the web, very bright people are about to wrestle with social mobility and how to ensure that smart people end up in smart places, and not on the end of a Probation Service pen or under achieving and bored, resulting in high sickness levels and disengagement with society.

Yes, you did read that right. And I'm still not going to quote research and statistics at you because I could, really I could, but that's not what this blog post is about. Other people build walls of numbers, I build walls of experience. My experience, organisations experience, life experience.

I used to be a Probation Service Officer involved in the delivery of something called an Intensive Supervision and Monitoring Project. Click the link and go to point 2 for a description of what this is generally considered to be. Our project was based in Tower Hamlets and involved offenders out on Parole from serving prison sentences who had committed 5 or more offences in the previous 12 months. A particular kind of offence tended to qualify offenders for inclusion on the projects - drug motivated thefts and robberies. Of the 15 offenders on our list during my time with the team, 1 in particular sticks in my mind. He was a young chap, about 20 or so and incredibly bright. Unfortunately, he wasn't recognised as being so inside the education system, and so flew under the radar. As he got more and more bored, his interest in school dropped, and his interest in crime rose - because it was problem solving and because he was good at it and because it gave him an adrenaline rush. Eventually, drugs offered similar things and one fuelled the other, until his brightness was eroded by the drugs and he got stupid, and he started getting caught.

I can't tell you how many times he didn't get caught but to give you some idea, the lad had been in and out of courts so often that the Court staff recognised him.

Research shows, his gender is related. Boys under perform at school. I know that article talks about expectations potentially harming outcomes. There is a reason for that. Because that's where I'm going next.

As that article points out, children pick up on expectations, not only of their teachers, but also of their parents. One can outweigh the other. But if you are met with both as you grow up, then you can find yourself expecting nothing of yourself, because no one else expects anything of you. Don't believe me? Think bright people are bright no matter where they're born and get the same opportunities? Wrong.

Aspirations are luxuries. I've said it before and I'll say it again, when you're concentrating on paying the bills, the rent/mortgage and how much money you've got left in your purse at the end of the week, your childrens aspirations and your aspirations for them can go out of the window. Instead, your childrens view of the world can shrink to not annoying mummy and daddy as they have yet another argument about yet another brown envelope which has just dropped through the door. Homework is not considered important in the face of housework which needs to be done. Books are absent. Inspiration is non existent. Exposure to the world of work in these situations is rare because oftentimes, parents are not working, or are working in construction, administration, or other service industries - and there is no perception of a world outside of these areas.

Even when it comes to work experience, which should be an opportunity to widen horizons, connections which some children do not have through their parents play a part. Everyone else in my year (or so it felt) went to work in interesting companies and organisations which either their parents or their parents friends worked in. I went to the library for a week (because all geeky people who like reading books should aspire to be librarians - I'm not knocking the profession but it was suggested to every child in my year who indicated they liked books by some random piece of software which processed the boxes we'd ticked) and then I went and photocopied for a week at a local estate agents. Stop laughing at the back - and those who know anything about me will be laughing, believe me.

Children do not know possibilities are there unless they are told they are there. Now, I know background is less important than I thought it was, but I still turned up to university (my parents never mentioned university as a possibility once, my attendance was entirely down to my best friends parents to whom I owe a great debt) feeling like I had been dumped into an entirely different world. Everyone looked different, wore different clothes, had entirely different life experiences, had actually been outside of the country once (I went on a school trip to Paris), had eaten in restaurants (sounds ridiculous? I'm not lying, you try eating in a restaurant for the first time and not knowing the correct way of ordering, in what order, eating with which cutlery, it's mortifying) and actually really feeling like a fish out of water.

Moving into the world of work straight away and skipping universirty wouldn't have been any less confusing, because I had no idea of what a normal working day looked like. My previous experience of work had been working 12 hour days 7 days a week at the local Co-Op to attempt to mitigate some of the massive amounts of debt I was getting into - and of course, I thought that work ethic was normal. So, of course, my first job after university was as a data entry clerk for a local insurance company. Because I simply didn't know any better, I had no contacts to help me find something appropriate and I thought it was all I was good for, because no one had ever told me I wasn't.

In order to succeed in this world, there are many tools which are needed if you are born into a place where those skills simply don't exist. I'm not, by the way, telling you this so you ever look at me with pity, for if you do I shall ignore you entirely. I am telling you this so that you can at least go away with a better awareness of how lucky you are, and at the absolute best, you can go away and make life a little shinier for someone else.
  • Confidence. Some people are told from a very early age they are good at certain things, excel at others, and good grades are celebrated, recognised and sometimes rewarded. The impact of none of those things happening can often result in under achieving people because they simply don't think they are particularly good at anything. Positive re-enforcement is absolutely the most important thing. Access to people who have the time to do that is helpful. Whether that's physical access or digital access, I personally don't think so, but other people may have research to hand which disproves me. 
  • Aspirations. You can't aspire to be something or do something if;
    • you don't know what is out there to aspire to be - so better information on career paths available absolutely has to be a priority. I don't know how the Careers Service has developed but I promise you, a less dynamic, helpful, interesting or useful experience I've since to have. Please make it relevant and interesting and capable of acknowleding that some people do not fit in boxes. Indeed, some recognition, please, that people who do not fit in boxes need to go into think tanks, civil services, GCHQ, and many other places would be absolutely fabulous. It's not talent spotting, it's simply acknowledging there is a space for everyone in the workforce and behind a library counter is not the last resort for people you don't quite understand
    • you haven't got the belief you have the right to aspire. See point 1. We're going to keep coming back to this.
  • Expectations. If no one expects anything of you, if you have no targets or deadlines or grade levels to head for, well what's the point? Really? Some people can motivate themselves endlessly, but not everyone. There has to be somewhere to go to say 'I did this and it was frikking awesome', somewhere to share enthusiasm and passion, or it dies. Some recognition is necessary, some feedback required to give a reason to young people to achieve when there is utter disinterest at home born from a complete lack of understanding.
  • Influence. This loops back a little to point 1 (Confidence) but it deserves a seperate point, because it is important. There is something inarguable about people spending time helping you to grow and develop. No matter how irrelevant you feel your contribution (because it is not valued in your home or educational environment) if enough people spend enough time nuturing, listening, answering questions and discussing, eventually it is impossible for the subject of that time to disregard the opinions, or the worth implied by the time invested of all those people. The simple fact is, again positive re-enforcement is key. Having somewhere to go to express unformed ideas and opinions, somewhere to take the first steps in learning how to discuss and debate like an adult, is essential. 
  • Celebrating intelligence. Our society revolves, in the main, around a celebrity culture which places high regard on looks, size, singing or acting talent, and none of the ability to think. Role models for young people who want to learn as much as possible in a short time as possible are few and far between. The recent Stargazing Live event run by the BBC is a big step in the right direction, but the lack of scientific, mathematical or literary programming on mainstream TV doesn't help. Exposure to people who are bright, like to think, who are intelligent and are entirely comfortable with that reduces the impact of young peoples experience of intelligence being something which marks you out as different, often results in bullying and ends up being seen as a negative atttribute and not a positive one. Something has to be done to mitigate this, whether it's a joint venture between smart minds who don't mind sharing, or whether the exposure of young people to blogs which like to think increases. The balance has to tip and the digital space is the place to do it.
  • Mentoring. As previously mentioned, the only reason I went to university was the assumption I would be from my best friends parents, one a teacher, the other a Police Officer. That assumption led to me filling out a UCAS form without really thinking about it, there was simply an assumption that with the grades I was achieving (despite everything) I would be going. So I went. Not the best reason, in retrospect, though I am so glad I did. Mentoring needs to fill the gap for those who aren't lucky enough to have a best friend who crosses the invisible lines. Tucking people under your wing can be a massively time intensive undertaking if you're not careful, but it is also massively rewarding. You get back exactly what you have the time to put in. But in the process, your team might end up with a graduate who sparkles instead of one who simply knows how to fill in an application form really well. You don't know, if you don't try. 
  • Acceptance. Young people who aren't necessarily from the same background as you, might feel a little bit self conscious about that. Accepting young people as bright, but with chips around the edges still is absolutely essential. Don't expect perfect etiquette. Don't expect no lapses into text speak, though gentle nudging in the right direction will be appreciated. Do expect great things of them, but allow them to fail as well as succeed. Failure can look daunting to people who are not used to it, no matter what background they come from. Going from being the brightest goldfish in the bowl, to swimming with what may appear to be a bunch of sharks initially can be intimidating and requires a big shift in outlook, from inside to outside, from learning independantly (lack of parental interest will mean studying alone will have been the norm) to learning from asking questions, debating and being wrong. Sometimes endlessly. Allow people to be wrong. 
  • Motivators. Money isn't necessarily the motivator for wanting a good job and to be successful. I am not denying it's on the list for most people. I'm not denying that if you have grown up with nothing, suddenly having enough money to afford a book whenever you want one isn't really nice. But some people are motivated by being able to work with people just like them who like to think and do and question. Others are motivated by wanting to pass their knowledge, passion and enthusiasm on. And some people are purely motivated by money. Don't make assumptions, you need to cater for all of them and you need to tailor possible offered outcomes to take into account all these things.
All of the above comes from experience. My experience. I guess that might be obvious. But I remember vividly how I felt at 12, at 16, at 18 and at 20 years old. I wish very much the web had existed then. Because it was only in being exposed to other people who liked to think that I learnt it was okay to, that it was expected in some quarters, that it was celebrated and encouraged. If we can pull people in, if we can accept that at the moment the people we might be trying to reach might only have web access in libraries or at school because a broadband connection is not at the top of priorities at home, and we acknowledge that everyone needs to be helped just a little bit differently but that there are common threads, I believe digital can be the answer to starting ripples in places never reached before. I believe digital can do the same thing for others that it has done for me.

I believe there are thousand of people out there, feeling just how I used to feel. And I believe they can be, if they want to be, the leaders, thinkers and innovators of the future.

Bringing something different to the table, can often result in a redesign of the table.

1 comment:

  1. I like this post. Has resonance with issues when I was a second tier officer in a local authority careers service. We were amongst very, very few seriously looking at careers education and guidance for primary school-aged children.

    We were serious, too. Research was suggesting that societal, family and peer group stereotyping was well established before kids got to secondary schools. Skills which even today I hear employers bemoaning a lack of were also thin on the ground in younger children - teamwork, as just one example.

    This was a pre-digital age (late 80's/early 90's) and I still believe that if any of the "powers that were" then had taken it seriously, it would have been a groundbreaker in assisting the growth of some very important skills, attitudes and aptitudes. Gender stereotyping was firmly embedded. "Can do" was still held back by class, race etc.

    My perspective is that just as these things were stronger even still in, say, my parents' generation, they were strong at the time I am describing (end of Thatcher's Britain), but less strong today, and hopefully this is a pattern.

    This is, I'm afraid, a slightly watered down version of a reply I typed earlier, which got "eaten" before it appeared. The muse was on me then, but less so now.

    In answer to the question about how the Careers Service has "developed", it just hasn't. Anne Widdecombe, cuddly totem of Strictly Scum Dancing was Sec of State for Employment then, and oversaw a catastrophic privatisation of local authority careers services in 1995. A lingering decline followed before Connexions came along. Now look what is happening to that.

    Careers Services are the butt of old jokes and old experiences trotted out regularly (even I have one from the early 1970's!) but some of them were well ahead of the curve, and their demise at the hands of a previous "reforming" Tory government made us all ultimately the poorer.