Inspiring the Future (or Not)

How can children find out about life beyond school/university now that careers’ advice has been so drastically cut back? I have been involved with the charity Inspiring the Future for a number of years since the launch of the sister campaign Inspiring Women in 2013. (I wrote about that launch here.) The aim of the charity is to get people from the workforce going in to talk to schools, both at primary and secondary level, to spell out what career opportunities there are and what the world of work looks and feels like. To teenagers, this adult world may feel very alien, distant and perhaps even not relevant. On that last point they would be wrong.

This week I participated in a large event (as opposed to an individual visit to a school), in Cambridge, involving a significant number of adults as well as over 100 children. There were different activities. The one I was involved with, termed a master class, required me to share my career trajectory and what I had thought I had learned during my career as a scientist with groups of around a dozen 14-16 year olds, after which they were open to bombard me with questions, all in a total of about 20 minutes per group. When I did such an event before I was indeed barraged with questions; this time the children, all girls, seemed more reluctant to quiz me.

There could have been various reasons for this lack of curiosity, a lack which I found rather disappointing. Maybe I am simply too old in their eyes to look as if I have anything in common with them, although I know at least one other person faced a similar challenge of silence. Maybe my introductory spiel had just put them off. After all perhaps they feel, as one of them said, ‘science is boring’ so why should they want to learn about how I go about my work? But perhaps they also simply had no idea how to engage with me. If the world of work seems remote, how do you begin to know what you need to know (a concept not unrelated to those famous unknown unknowns of Donald Rumsfeld  )

If that latter suggestion is right, it probably simply highlights that children at some schools face major issues because of social disadvantage rather than because they are stupid. If you come from a family where neither parent has had a job in your lifetime, how can you begin to conceive that you should be seeking out facts to help you do better? If the only working folk around you are cleaners, farm hands and shop assistants it probably seems totally unlikely that a scientist has anything to say to you. My attempts to get the girls to consider what skills might be helpful also did not prompt responses that seemed particularly helpful. The first time I asked this question I clearly did not phrase it right, being given the answer that one in particular wanted to go to sleep (at 2 in the afternoon!). Undoubtedly they realised confidence might be helpful – but did they realise that they were exhibiting a total lack of that same commodity? But perhaps the most telling answer was that it wasn’t skills or qualifications they needed, but to know the right people, to talk a lot and to come over well at interview. If they believe that nepotism and charm trump skills it is a sad reflection of the world they (and us) live in. My attempts to counter this attitude I suspect met with limited success.

Nevertheless, whether one meets a totally engaged and outgoing group or a more reticent and challenging one, I strongly believe the aims of the charity are excellent. Children are too often unable to learn about options that might be available to them and hence unable to identify the skills and/or qualifications required. This isn’t simply about saying ‘have you thought about university, or an apprenticeship?’, it is much more about suggesting how many different routes there are to getting a pay-packet, and the thousands of different roles society needs. The charity certainly doesn’t only send the high-powered professional into schools, but also the ones who left at 16 or those who dropped out until they were 25 and then finally found their feet. It is an activity about aspiration-raising, but also about providing some hard facts and sharing hard-won experience. I had hoped to be able to put across my message, often found on the pages of this blog, about the need to seize opportunities and not to feel defeated by a single failure, but I suspect a fair sprinkling of the children who attended this particular event did not believe in opportunities and had seen too many failures to believe that their own lives might be different, might even be interesting.

I need to reflect on my style of presentation to such groups. Clearly what I did failed to work this time around, whereas last time I was much more successful. It is always important to be able to think on ones’ feet, but I must have failed to be nimble enough this week to overcome the reluctance these groups had to engage. Nevertheless, let me use this post as an opportunity to encourage readers to sign up with the charity. All they ask is the commitment to a single hour a year in which to visit some local school along with the willingness to share whatever experiences seem most helpful to the community in question. My next visit to an outlying village is in the process of being finalised. I obviously have work to do to make this successful, but perhaps I can at least hope to provoke some new volunteers to join in. Go to the website, provide your details, and the charity will get to work to pair you up with some state school in need.

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5 Responses to Inspiring the Future (or Not)

  1. Michelle Sheehan says:

    You are so inspiring in your honesty and humility Athene. I bet among those children was at least one quiet child whose life you have just changed forever.

  2. Brigitte says:

    Do they take retired people? I am not sure I am a good talker but I could probably make them laugh (I always say silly things, as my students know) 😉
    And Michelle is very probably right about the effect you might have had.

  3. I am pretty sure they do – you’ve just got more life experiences to share than younger folk, so more to tell them about.

  4. Beth says:

    Hi Athene,

    I read this article with much interest. My background is: bad school in a low aspiration area that’s one of the poorest parts of Western Europe. Most of the jobs here are seasonal / zero hours / low pay and, in my experience, we had little exposure to career paths outside building trades / tourism etc. Not that these careers are bad, but there should be more exposure to other options. I wasn’t ever planning to go to university but on the stern words of my maths teacher (& my mum), I went, got a BSc and then a PhD (all still in the same area, at a newish campus built with EU regional development funds).

    Now as a postdoc (still at the same uni!), as I did during my PhD, I make an effort to visit local schools and talk about my uni experiences and time spent working abroad between my degrees. Students are always shocked when I say which school I came from & if they don’t engage before they certainly do after they find out that actually, I’m kind of like them. It’s like we have a shared experience. As bad as it seems, I’m not sure I would have engaged with a visitor to my school who seems so remote from my life as a teenager, I still struggle with that now as an adult! Just last week speaking to teenagers they believe from everyday life (look at politics!) that people with the connections from the better schools get ahead. (Even in my head now I sometimes question whether the university workplace is really for “people like me”). I always think it’s interesting to ask students what they actually want to do.

    Recently, I was contacted by another charity that seeks to build alumni networks in state schools in poorer parts of the country. This, I think, is a fantastic idea. That way, ex students from a diverse range of backgrounds and with wide ranging life experiences can stand up and really say, “look, I’m like you”, which does make students listen.

    Just my two cents worth!

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