A journey from learning to earning – a year in the making

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A journey from learning to earning – a year in the making

The following blogs are taken from our employment and skills bulletin which charts the journey of my 16 year old through his last year in secondary education and reflections on the policy and programme disconnects that impact on the employability of young people.

Bring your son to work week 5th July 2012 -This first blog charts the frustrations I faced trying to find work experience for my son back in 2012

It is a rare occasion that I am filled with fear and dread, but I am really not looking forward to next week. My son’s school in their infinite wisdom decided not to fund support for arranging work placements for students as it was too expensive. Instead the school passed this responsibility onto parents, even though it calls itself a ‘specialist college’ that focuses on vocational achievement.

Despite begging, pleading and the odd bit of emotional blackmail, my efforts to find just five days work experience for my 15 year old son have come to nothing and so he will be joining me and my fellow Rocket Science colleagues next week. I even found a placement at the local supermarket three weeks ago, but the school said they did not have the time or resources to organise it from their end.

For the past three months I have been resisting the school’s attempts to use my current workplace as a last resort on the basis that working with me is just not the same as working in a real placement. Neither has my son got the patience nor inclination to become a public policy and research consultant – not a job for the faint hearted in these times. So it is going to be hard to give him a range of interesting duties, although it will certainly be great to get the backlog of filing sorted.

I feel as though he is being cheated of a real opportunity to explore the world of work but I relented as he did not want to be singled out as the only Year 10 at school next week. I suppose I am anxious for a number of reasons. Will he behave himself? Will he answer me back like he does at home? Will anyone be able to translate his incoherent baritone mumblings into actual real words? Will he have enough ‘Lynx Excite’ deodorant to drench himself with and overpower commuters on the train into work?

Ok so he doesn’t have as many ‘Kevin the teenager’ moments as he used to but I am understandably on edge.

Nick Clegg announced this week that he is sending an army of volunteers into state schools to talk about careers which is all well and good. But if schools are not resourced properly to help their students find appropriate work placements relevant to their career aspirations what is the point?

The Education and Employers’ Taskforce produced a report earlier this year, Work Experience – Impact and Delivery, Insights from the Evidence, which suggested that a better organised work experience system would deliver much better outcomes. No surprises there then!

Despite work placements receiving a bad press throughout this year, I am a passionate advocate of them, in fact my former NEET stepson was made to go on a programme early last year and has not looked back – having been in full time employment for nearly a year. So why is it that the education system continues to fail young people?

My daughter who is now 25 had similar problems with work experience back in 2002. So supporting work experience in schools is not just a funding issue. It feels like there is a systematic failure.

If I were the careers teacher I would have thought a bit more creatively about how to solve the problem. Perhaps a recruitment drive from the 500 plus parents who send their children to school might have worked, a kind of work placement swap scheme – you have mine, if I have yours. No cost, just a bit of imagination and thought would have gone a long way.

I know that schools are under intense financial pressure but they also have a moral obligation to their students to prepare them well for the future. Unless they start to really get to grips with bridging the gap between education and work, our NEET problem will continue to grow and the aspirations of our young people will be difficult to realise.

All’s well that ends well – 19th July 2012 – It didn’t end up all bad – this is how my son got on in his work experience week

So last week wasn’t that bad after all. For those of you who didn’t read the bulletin the week before last, I was living in fear of my son joining me at Rocket Science for his work experience. It was as a last resort, despite my attempts to find an alternative, as the school had abdicated responsibility to parents for sorting out the Year 10 work experience programme.

After just two hours of doing some data entry, fate intervened and the very kind Print Service Manager (who provides printing services to all the companies in our building) stepped in and offered to take him on for the week.

We share our offices with over 40 different businesses, mainly architects and planners who need to get their drawings, presentations and designs printed. So my son was kept very busy collecting these from the various floors, getting them printed and then returning them. As well as doing the odd bit of printing for me.

By the end of the week he had learned how to take and record orders, understood the rates and quoting system, helped to load up printing machines, cut and collated the plastic and card covers for reports and ended up cutting and binding a range of documents.

He got up at six so he could beat me to the shower in the morning, caught the bus at 7.15 so he could start work early, via Café Nero for a cappuccino, and did not end up leaving the office till 6pm. He managed to navigate the Central and Metropolitan lines by himself, since on the second day I was up in Birmingham at the Welfare to Work Convention, and he fitted into the daily routine of commuting and work with ease. His Manager was so impressed he bought my son some shopping vouchers and has promised to find him some extra days’ work in the summer holidays.

His attitude and the positive feedback from the Manager really took me by surprise and showed how much I have underestimated him.

On Monday morning my son begged me to let him go back to work rather than back to school. I believe the work ethic bug has caught him now and I am so grateful that he has been given the chance to prove to himself what he can do and what he can achieve in just five days.

He has not had an easy time at school – he is dyslexic and suffered early on in his education also with attention disorder. He still finds it very hard to concentrate and will need help to do his GCSEs next summer: he cannot write at speed and will need the aid of a computer. He has always had a difficult relationship with school – not having such a high degree of learning need that he requires specialist help and support, but still having to survive in classroom sizes of 30 students plus and attempting to keep up with more able students.

But he is lucky. When I read Louise Casey’s report today on troubled families, I was struck by a story where a mum had had similar problems to myself in getting the ‘system’ to recognise and acknowledge her son’s learning needs. The mum in one of the Government’s ‘troubled families’ had such compounded problems and issues that she was not taken seriously. She had been worn out by the system and a diagnosis for her son unfortunately had come too late to make much of a difference. In my case I had to pay privately for an assessment and had the support of my family to help keep up my motivation when I too went head to head with the ‘system’. However I still didn’t get very far, and it was too late to make much of a difference to his educational chances – the damage had been done.

So this work experience opportunity for him will be life-changing, since he is not academic and will take a vocational route into employment. He could so easily become a NEET but I am determined to make sure he takes the learning from this experience and gets himself on the work ladder as soon as possible. This is where the similarity between myself and Louise Casey’s example ends: I have the opportunities and right circumstances to change the course of my son’s future. Will the Troubled Families initiative be enough to change the course for the other mum’s son?


A journey from learning to earning – 27th September 2012 – So the beginning of Year 11 and careers advice (or lack of it) is setting him up to fail

For those of you who are regular readers of the bulletin you have probably read my story of trying to find a work experience placement for my son in June. Both of us were saved the embarrassment and challenge of having to spend a week working together when a business in our building offered him the chance to work in their print room.

Last week he started his last year at school (Year 11) and will spend the last few months working towards his GCSEs, although he is now really worried about getting his predicted C in English (he has dyslexia) after the regrading of exam papers in August. He has had a difficult time at school and decided a long time ago that he did not want to go to college but wanted to go straight into a job. So at my suggestion he has been investigating the apprenticeship route for the past couple of months. My experience of careers advice in his school has been woeful, although slightly better than my own in the 80’s. His school is so focused on achievements and exams, that there is little time set aside for working out what kinds of jobs or opportunities the exam will lead to. My son had a five minute chat with his careers teacher yesterday who told him to go to www.apprenticeships.org and search for vacancies to get an idea of the kinds of opportunities available. But he has been told little about what’s involved, what level of pay is on offer, or the basics of how it works so he felt it all a bit pointless. I popped onto the website today to have a look, I can see why he was turned off.

Schools have such an important role in helping young people make the transition from education to work, but with the changes to careers services and duty for the provision of advice passed to schools (but without funding), we can expect that this role will become increasingly compromised. The Work Foundation published a report this week, ‘Raising aspirations and managing transitions’, which highlighted concerns around the Education Act 2011, the limitations of the National Careers Service for under 19’s in not providing face to face advice and the capacity and capability of schools in securing and managing a quality advice service for pupils.

The Holt review included recommendations that schools should promote apprenticeships and work with employers more, but Jason Holt said he was disappointed that the Government had failed to take forward his recommendations in an article for FE Week.

It will be interesting to see how many recommendations of the Richard’s Review into Apprenticeships due later this year, align with those from the Holt review. If these two reviews recommend similar actions then surely the Government will need to act.

In the meantime young people, like my son, will be having similar experiences of inadequate, poorly funded careers advice and a lack of information about the apprenticeship option at the most important time of their lives. I can help guide him, but there are many parents and families out there who cannot help or do not know how to.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the Government is encouraging our education system to create NEETs. So I will be charting his journey in future bulletins to share with you how he gets on in managing his transition from learning to earning.


 A journey from learning to earning – January 25th, 2013 – How schools can fail those with learning disabilities and condemn them to a blighted future

I decided last year to share with you the experience of my son on his journey from learning to earning in his last year at school. You may remember the trouble I had securing a work placement for him, as well as the positive impact this experience had on him and the ray of hope it provided to boost his confidence.

He has an uncommon form of dyslexia affecting his ability to process information quickly (the level of a seven year old), a condition diagnosed in 2009 which I had to pay for privately because the school refused to refer him. A succession of teachers put his lack of achievement and concentration down to naughty and disruptive behaviour. As you can imagine, he has had his fair share of detentions, isolations and improvement plans, he was often described as “acting like a seven year old” and told that it was time for him to grow up. His dyslexia does not mean that he cannot process information, but it takes longer for him to do so, which means that he needs help to keep up in classes, he cannot write from a blackboard, homework has always been a struggle and he finds exam conditions incredibly stressful. As you can imagine, his experience of education has not been positive, learning has always been associated with negativity and punishment, it is no wonder he says he wants nothing more to do with education when he leaves school in July.

His school, like many others, are obsessed with GCSE targets to the exclusion of anything else. The school league tables were published this week, and showed that there are 170,000 pupils in what the Government describes as failing schools – those that have not met the 40% floor target of pupils achieving grades A to C. My son’s school, according to these tables, is doing comparatively well, achieving 60%, but reading this the other way round means there is a 40% failure rate: that is 72 young people. Schools should be targeting their efforts on their failures as these young people are at risk of becoming NEET and not realising their personal and employability potential.

My son is very likely to fall into this category. He is just a few marks away from getting a C in Maths and English, but he has been refused extra time from the examination board, because he just misses a threshold. This is frustrating both for me and for him as we are desperate to get him into a decent apprenticeship when he leaves school.

My son’s experience of careers guidance provided by the school has been, at best, minimal, signposting him to the national apprenticeships website. Fortunately, I have access to networks and information that can help him, but I am in the minority of parents. I wonder what happened to those 72 students since July last year. The focus on schools providing academic rather than vocational routes is going to get worse rather than better and those young people not able to take an academic route will become failures of the education system.

The Education Select Committee’s report on careers guidance in schools was published this week. In it were contained numerous warnings about the new arrangements for careers guidance, which were put in place by the Government in response to the Wolf Review of Vocational Education.The report concluded that transfer of responsibility for careers guidance to schools without the provision of funding will seriously affect the access to, and quality of, face to face advice.

Evidence shows that providing good careers advice and joined up pathways for those at risk of becoming NEET in preparation for and through their transition from school helps to reduce that risk and enables those young people to make positive choices for their future. Head teachers are given guidance which shows the importance of connecting better to the world of work. What is it going to take for schools to make this needed transformation of approach to reduce the likelihood of many young people becoming NEET?

So what next for my son? Well, he is yet to take more exams and we wait for the results although as he walked out of one last week in frustration, I am starting to worry about whether he will make the grade for the apprenticeship he has his eye on. His behaviour is deteriorating through the frustration of exams and he is being threatened with exclusion – something that could further blight his future. On a positive note the company he worked for last year as part of his work experience have offered him work over Easter and possibly the summer. So an employer does believe in him and his abilities, he has this hope to hold on to.


 A journey from learning to earning –  May 31st, 2013   – The trouble with exams  

My son leaves school next month, and I am panicking! Since I last wrote about his journey from learning to earning he has re-sat his Maths GCSE and got another D (although only a few marks away from a C). He did well considering that he panicked in one of the exams and walked out, something that I hope he won’t do again, but he finds the pressure of exams overwhelming. You may recall that my son has a learning difficulty for which a statement and extra time has been refused because he is just below the criteria line.

His next opportunity to resit this exam is on the 10th June so the wait continues to see if he will get all of the GCSE grades needed to apply for the apprenticeships he wants to do. He has put applications into BT and a printing company, but has lost a bit of confidence because of his Maths result.

His other challenge is English. As I write this blog, he is at school during his half term holiday to attend a revision class for his exam next week. His teachers have confidence that he can achieve a C, but it all depends on how he performs in his exams and his own motivation to keep calm and composed as well as doing some extra revision. He has scored well in the listening and speaking elements of the exam, but again his learning difficulty lets him down as he needs time to process what he wants to say to then be able to write it. For pupils like my son, qualifications which allow them to demonstrate their understanding in alternative ways are really important. My son has performed well in the listening and speaking element of his English, but Ofqual are currently proposing to remove this from the exams. Michael Gove is also proposing to re-grade GCSE marks, replacing A-G grades with a numerical system.

All this reform encourages elitism in educational achievement, leaving behind those who may not be academic, but are nonetheless bright, on what could end up being an education scrapheap. I hope those in charge of education reform don’t forget that just because you are not academic or cannot get on at school does not mean that you are not bright enough to make a great contribution to society and the economy – just look at Richard Branson who is also dyslexic.

However, I cannot forget that my son’s future is also in his own hands. Since my last blog post he has become smitten with his first love and spends every available second with her. His home revision has suffered and the very mention of him doing some in preparation for his exams sends him into an apoplectic teenage rage.

His main priority at the moment is to buy himself an expensive suit for his forthcoming prom. Negotiating a price I am prepared to pay, as well as looking for a suit that he can also wear for interviews, has tested our relationship to its very core. Although I love him very much I am not sure how much I like him at the moment.

I only hope the belligerence and attitude he is displaying at the moment remains confined to his family and friends – he won’t be able to get away with it in the workplace.

So fingers crossed for June, for a yes from his apprenticeship applications and a return to the nice, communicative and loving child I once knew.


A journey from learning to earning –  July 12th, 2013   – Ill-prepared to search for opportunities – the inadequacy of careers guidance

As my son waved goodbye to me from the open window of a large white limousine on his way to his prom a couple of weeks ago, he also waved goodbye to his secondary education.

When you last encountered him in my bulletin, my son was only concentrating on getting a blue suit for his prom so he could fit in with the other TOWIE wannabes in his year, rather than focusing on doing well in his maths exam. He thinks he is going to be driving a fast and expensive car at 21, is already talking about whitening his teeth (give me strength!) and spends most of his spare time in front of the mirror checking the height of his quiff.

What he has not realised is that the credit facilities of the Bank of Mum are soon to be withdrawn and he shall be thrown, probably kicking and screaming, into the realities of adult life. The enormity of what is ahead of him has not quite hit yet – although I sense the penny is starting to drop.

He has just got his first debit card. I was not sure this would ever happen as he kept turning up to the bank at 5.15 with all his identity and forms not realising (or checking!) that they closed at 5.00. And before you ask, yes, I did tell him beforehand. If you have ever tried talking to a teenager you will know that they cannot distinguish whether a parent is telling them off or helping them. Anything said is ignored once it hits the ear canal and is stored in the “don’t listen its mum nagging again” section of their brain, together with “please don’t leave pizza boxes under your bed” and “don’t come home with lovebites all over your neck”.

My son thought that by having a debit card, his account would magically fill back up with money every time he we went to the cashpoint. He has learnt a painful lesson – that you can only spend what you have got. To help teach him this lesson I gave him an allowance at the beginning of this month, which he has already wiped out, with 19 days to go to the end of July. It is painful listening to his whinging and whining about how his social life is ruined, how unfair life is and the tragedy that it is being 16. But I am being strong and not giving in – unless he learns that you have to earn and manage your finances well, he will get himself into financial trouble in the future. I am wondering whether I should have done this earlier and have I spoilt him and is it all my fault?

But then I remember my daughter at his age. She went to work at BHS in their restaurant when she was 15 (without being nagged) and continued right through to when she went to university at 18. She also managed to get a part-time job to help fund herself through her degree and has worked ever since she left. I did not treat her any differently, gave her the same amount of pocket money, support, love and guidance. Why is it so different with my son?

I think there is definitely something here around personal resilience and self reliance. My daughter is very practical and has a lot of common sense, a part of her personality that has shone through since she was a baby. I remember her hiding my car keys from me one day as she did not want me to go to work, and although I was cross with her at the time, her actions made a lot of sense. My son on the other hand is incredibly naïve. He has been applying to apprenticeships left, right and centre (N.B.notgoingtouni.co.uk is a far better website than apprenticeships.org.uk). He rang me up the other day incredibly happy that he had finally had a response from an electrical apprenticeship based in London. But his provider is based in Southampton! And there is no way he can afford to go from Essex to Southampton on day release. His disappointment is palpable.

What has become abundantly clear is that he has not been shown how to source information properly nor realised that the location of your provider is really important. To me this is basic stuff and should have been covered in his careers support at school.

So this is another lesson he has learnt in the past week which just shows the inadequacy of a careers system which is ill-preparing those young people who need support most for work.


A journey from learning to earning – September 6th, 2013   – A dearth of apprenticeship opportunities but he is on the way to a brighter future

Throughout the summer, whilst the bulletin was on a break, many people were asking after my son and how he was getting on with finding an apprenticeship. So I thought I would take the liberty of kicking off this bulletin with an update of how things are going.

You may recall that my son had applied for an apprenticeship for which he would have to attend college some 150 miles away, and had to turn that down for obvious reasons. Following his many applications he was offered a couple of interviews, one for a trainee Barista and the other a sales executive role, neither of which ‘floated his boat’. Many of his friends applied for apprenticeships without success, either not hearing back at all or getting offers for administration or sales interviews. Technical opportunities such as in the engineering, IT and electrical fields remained elusive, and none of my son’s friends or peers have secured an apprenticeship opportunity as a result of their efforts.

One of the consequences of having had such difficulty at school is that my son finds it hard to manage and direct his own learning. In part this is attributed to a lack of confidence, as well as a lack of self-discipline and a sprinkling of teenage belligerence. So I have felt quite unsure about him going to college (he refused to consider sixth form and would also have been refused a place given his academic achievement) as it is more relaxed and relies a lot on self-learning. I must admit that this reluctance is also based on my own experience of having messed up my education at college, when I had a lot of potential which ended with a BTEC certificate and a pregnancy.

But in the absence of a suitable apprenticeship opportunity being available, I have relented and enrolled him at a college nearby which claims to be the most successful in England. I hope so. He has been placed straight onto a Level 2 in preparation for a Level 3 in electrical studies with a commitment by the college to do another SEN assessment and put in place a learning support package.

You may also remember the fear and dread we felt waiting for his exam results. In the end he received 2 Bs, 5 Cs one of which was English and 2 Ds.

His results surpassed both his and our expectations and the college will be giving him extra help to get a C in Maths over the next six months.

My rationale for getting my son on an apprenticeship was to help him achieve some financial independence and get used to working as early as possible. My nephew is 22, has just completed university and is yet to experience the reality of the world of work. He has not had a job since leaving school six years ago as he has had independent funding and support. But I think getting into a work discipline is going to be much harder for him as he is coming to it really late.

Fortunately, my 16 year old will get this experience now. I received a call three weeks ago to say that he (in his first ever employer interview) had secured a minimum 12 hour per week contract at the local Iceland doing a bit of everything. Since then he has worked over 60 hours, although he really needs to start to learn about budgeting as he has continued to ask for a line of credit from the Bank of Mum. His manager has said that they will give him hours around his college commitments and extra hours when they need him.

For those that know me I am not one to ‘count my chickens before they hatch’ despite being a fully paid up member of the ‘glass half full club’. But I can’t help feeling really optimistic about my son’s future. This is just the first step on his learn to earn transition. The road will be difficult as life has a way of throwing in a few obstacles on the way and who knows where this will lead him? But he is on the right track and has had a good start.

All I know is that without my family and a constant push from me I am not sure we would have made it this far if we had relied on the education system to get to this point. I think my story from a position of relative privilege (having a supportive family and job) highlights how important the relationship is between parents, children and schools.

If we want a long term solution to youth unemployment and poverty, we have to start delivering services that are designed around the family and narrow the divide that exists between schools and parents by helping to achieve a mutual responsibility for the educational and personal development of our young people.