Last week I was delighted to be part of a panel discussing regeneration in Pillgwenlly, a community in Newport, South Wales. The invitation came from RSA Fellow Wiard Sterk, who has been working with the team leading a major regeneration project in Pill, and asked me along to share examples of some of the inspirational community projects that RSA Fellows are leading elsewhere.
My family have roots in south Wales, but I haven’t been there in a few years – so I was somewhat intimidated to find myself speaking alongside people who know the area inside out, including RSA Fellowship Councillor Kathy Seddon, who grew up in Pill. It turned out, though, that one of the most interesting things about the evening was how much of what was discussed was familiar from projects I’ve worked with elsewhere.
Of course, it’s risky (and usually wrong) to assume that what works in one place will automatically apply in another, but a project I spoke about that seemed to strike a chord was Changing Chelmsford, a community organisation set up by RSA Fellows (led by Malcolm Noble, now chair of the RSA’s East of England region) in 2010. They’d hoped to start a conversation about how Chelmsford could become a more successful place, hoping to disprove the false notion – familiar to many places – that “nothing happens in this town”.
They’ve done this with resounding success. Since a first summer of events in 2010 attracted 120 or so people, they’ve held a ‘festival of ideas’ every summer, and sparked numerous initiatives and projects across the town. This year, over 500 people came to events, and an estimated 1000+ visited a temporary community space set up in an empty unit in a shopping centre. And when in 2012 Chelmsford bid successfully for city status, Changing Chelmsford was cited in the application as a shining example of community engagement.
What worked about the project? Here are a few rough thoughts I shared at the meeting:
- It worked across sectors. From the start, the project brought together volunteers, in the shape of RSA Fellows; officials from the borough and county councils; and professionals, particularly designers and artists. And, although it took a little longer, local businesses are now in on the act, providing support in kind for the annual festival.
- It focussed on real places. There are several fine buildings in Chelmsford that are currently not used to their full potential, most famously the former Marconi factory (often spoken of as the birthplace of radio). The group have increasingly focused their campaigning on these buildings, and have received some high profile media coverage for their efforts. More importantly, though, this has galvanised people around the project by giving them something solid to focus on.
- It supported practical projects. As well as campaigning, the group have worked to support individuals and groups in Chelmsford who had ideas for doing things differently. One example is Young Urban Explorers, a project led by a local architect Annabel Brown (and funded by RSA Catalyst) that challenged young people to seek out under-used spaces in the town, and then pitch their ideas for remodelling them to the council.
The project has been a huge success. However, as someone I spoke to last night commented, it’s frustrating when people talk about these kinds of initiatives in a way that makes them seem like plain sailing – which they rarely are. The group faced some big challenges:
- Volunteer fatigue. Anyone who’s been involved with community organisations knows that they often depend on ‘super-volunteers’: a small number of fantastically committed, dogged individuals who keep things ticking over. Changing Chelmsford was no different, and a constant concern in meetings I attended was to find ways of compensating people for whom the project rapidly became a full-time job.
- Reaching deprived and isolated communities. A persistent challenge for the project was reaching beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who engage in civic activity. The group made great efforts to reach out to all areas in the town, but in particular reaching the least well-off communities was a challenge. This did change, however, as the project grew in profile, and particularly through partnerships with organisations like the YMCA, who worked with Annabel on the Young Urban Explorers project.
These point to a few basic principles that seem to me to mark out many successful community projects: a combination of campaigning and practical action is often most successful; collaboration between different organisations gets things done quicker; and volunteer roles need to be rewarding and manageable if a project is going to last.
The RSA has worked, through research like our ChangeMakers project, to draw these kinds of conclusions about what works in social projects. In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing a handbook based on this work and the experiences of our Fellows and staff, that provides some basic guidance for people who want to improve their communities, and links to resources that can help them.
One thing that came up repeatedly in the discussion last night was the rarity with which good practice in community projects is actually shared between places and organisations. Some of these ideas might seem pretty basic, but I think working out what successful projects have in common – and spreading that knowledge as widely as possible – is time well spent.
The Big Idea: giving young people in Suffolk their say about education in the county
At the moment, educational attainment in Suffolk is well below the national average, and the local authority is determined to do something about it. Since last year, the RSA has been working with Suffolk County Council on Raising the Bar, an ambitious inquiry that aims to understand what needs to change – and then put that knowledge into practice.
Trying to balance careful research and practical experimentation is a common theme of the RSA’s work. Often these aims make strange bedfellows, partly because the skills and attitudes you need to understand a problem aren’t necessarily the same as those that help solve it. The RSA has one huge advantage over other organisations trying to achieve this blend, though, and that’s our Fellowship: 27,000 skilled, practically-minded people who want to support our charitable mission.
From the beginning, Fellows in Suffolk have been enthusiastic supporters of our work on Raising the Bar. They even went as far as organising a working dinner last November to help source ideas for how to start improving education on the ground. But one of the best things about RSA Fellows is that they don’t just help: they also challenge. And although they welcomed the Inquiry, local Fellows – led by Dr Emma Bond, a lecturer in childhood and youth studies at University Campus Suffolk, and Fellowship Councillor Suzanna Pickering – felt that it had not done enough to consider young people’s views about their education.
About the project
In response, they created Shout Out Suffolk: a project that asks young people under twenty for their views on learning, and what would make it better. They applied successfully for RSA Catalyst funding to help finance the project, and are working closely with the RSA education team and Suffolk County Council to make sure their work is fully integrated with the Inquiry.
“If we are really going to grasp why Suffolk is failing to meet the educational needs of young people,” Emma says, “we need to understand what their educational experiences are like and we need to listen to their views, as they are the very people who are going to be affected.”
Emma and her team are encouraging young people to answer three simple questions: what learning is like in Suffolk; what young people hope for in their lives; and what will make those things happen. If you look at the submissions so far on Pinterest (all edited to ensure confidentiality), you’ll see the creativity and effort they’ve already brought to bear on the project, from short essays to drawings and paintings.
“If we are really going to grasp why Suffolk is failing to meet the educational needs of young people, we need to understand what their educational experiences are like and we need to listen to their views as they are the very people who are going to be affected.”
Dr Emma Bond
As it happens, I grew up near the Suffolk coast. I was a pretty keen learner, but I also remember feeling frustrated by how small the world seemed from tiny schools in an isolated, culturally homogenous place. It’s fascinating to see the breadth of aspirations young people there have today – from designing computer games to becoming a mangaka (a manga artist) – but through our work I’ve also heard how poverty and lack of opportunity are holding many back.
There’s value in simply asking young people about their hopes and experiences, and the thing I find most encouraging about the project the life it will have beyond the Raising the Bar Inquiry. The Fellows involved want their efforts to spark further work to engage young people in shaping their education, and the next phase of the project, Make It Loud, hopes to work with similar initiatives across the country.
How you can get involved
If you’re based in Suffolk, you can help spread the word: there’s lots of information on the website, including an engagement pack for schools and organisations who work with young people. For more information on the project, follow @shoutoutsuffolk in Twitter for updates, or email email@example.com to contact the project leaders.
If you live elsewhere and are interested in this approach, you might also like to explore to the RSA’s wider activity in educational policy and practice, of which our work in Suffolk is just one part. And if you’re an RSA Fellow and have an idea of your own you’d like to develop, Catalyst is there to support you – whether that’s through funding or support from others.
Shout Out Suffolk is a great example of how the RSA’s influence and the expertise of our Fellows can combine to tackle a big, difficult challenge. And that it’s happening on my home turf? Well, all the better.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter
How do we meet the growing needs of an ageing society? We all have an interest in this question (even if sometimes we also prefer to avoid thinking too hard about it) and over the last couple of years I’ve spoken to many RSA Fellows about their experiences of how acute it becomes when people close to you need care and support.
Some of those Fellows contributed to a report we produced recently for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on making decisions about care (my colleague Emma Lindley, who was one of the authors, neatly summarised its themes in a recent blog).
This week the JRF published another paper, Widening choices for older people with high support needs, which I heard about from the programme’s director, Ilona Haslewood, at a recent event. Its theme is how people can help each other meet their needs as they age, but it also offers an interesting case for why social projects should empower people to help solve each other’s problems, rather than doing it for them.
The report starts from the principle that the care of older people should not be a one-way street, based on agencies providing support to people who cannot meet their own needs. Instead, it argues that approaches based on mutuality and reciprocity – how people can do things together and help each other meet each other’s needs – allow older people to stay in their communities and make a contribution to them.
The report is clear that there is plenty of good practice out there, ranging from formal schemes such as Shared Lives, to informal arrangements such as peer support networks. However, what’s also clear is that rhetoric about helping people help each other can sometimes fall out of step with reality:
“Much is spoken and written about the centrality of mutualism to public service design and delivery, and the role of co-production in the transformation of social care and associated support. […] The reality on the ground for many older people with high support needs is very different.” (47)
The interesting question, then, is what makes alternatives to traditional care work. The report picks out a few success factors, and here are three that seem good general principles for any project that depends on reciprocal sharing of time and skills:
- All parties involved need to recognise the mutual advantages as benefits of working together.
- It needs to spell out the practical benefits of working together (for instance, participants helping each other overcome barriers and “life’s obstacles”)
- It’ll work best if is generated, designed, owned and led by those directly involved
Are these initiatives genuinely grounded in the needs of the people they benefit? Do they make the most of the skills that people have to offer?
The report also lays out an interesting challenge for organisations like the RSA. It generously cites work that we, NESTA and others have done to encourage and support social enterprise – but asks, in effect, whether all the projects we support take the ‘social’ bit seriously enough. Are these initiatives genuinely grounded in the needs of the people they benefit? Do they make the most of the skills that people have to offer?
Put another way, the idea – the model or approach you take to solving a problem – cannot be everything. Working with RSA Fellows, we’re keen to do everything we can to encourage good ideas to grow. Our Catalyst programme, for instance, provides funding and support to socially beneficial projects. What I’m left wondering about, though, is the subtler question of the kind of relationships and behaviours that need to develop (if the above principles are sound) for a good idea to survive in the long run – and to offer the greatest possible benefit, both direct and indirect, to people involved in it.
Returning to the earlier warning about rhetoric outpacing reality, it’s not enough to pay lip-service to this ambition: what’s needed is advice on how to make it work in practice. One way we can rise to the challenge is to share examples of projects that demonstrate genuine reciprocity where we find them. To that end, who out there is solving a problem by helping people solve it for themselves – and what can we learn from how they work?
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager, responsible for improving how people engage with our programme of action and research. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.
The RSA has been busier than I’ve ever known it this week. We’ve had Richard Florida giving the President’s lecture; a day of robust debate on generation enterprise; Matthew’s annual lecture, which for my money was his best yet; and last night a fantastic evening of events showcasing the RSA’s work — including the brand new RSA Animate.
Throughout the week I’ve also been talking about some of the ways that the RSA and its Fellows are working to bring about social change. I started on Monday by explaining our ambition to make the RSA the best place to have an idea. Then I told you about our developing work on enterprise and young people, and how we’re hoping to involve our partners and Fellows in it. Finally, I wrote about our approach to social networks, and how those insights to inform our drug and alcohol recovery projects.
As ever with our work, there’s much more to say: on Monday we’re launching a major new design project, the Great Recovery, which aims to bring together everyone involved in the lifecycle of a product to design out waste. In a blog next week, I’ll also be talking about some exciting opportunities for Fellows to contribute to our work in education.
In the meantime, though, we wanted to close this week by focusing on our Fellows – the 27,000 people who support our work and contribute to it in their communities. This morning we’re holding a meeting of the Social Entrepreneurs’ network, which over the last couple of years has brought together brilliant people working in social business, and helped them learn from each other.
One of the key Fellows from that group, Trudy Thompson, will be joining in a Twitter Q&A at 2pm today, which is a chance for you to ask some of the questions that might have bubbled up over the course of this week. Trudy runs (and Tweets as) @bricksandbread, which is her social enterprise supporting sustainable businesses by giving experts a place to share their knowledge.
We’ve also invited Dan Thompson (@artistsmakers) who — if he can make contact from his train! — can tell you all about his brand new project. In case he gets stuck in a tunnel, I’ll give you a quick overview: We Will Gather is an ingenious new website, launched on Tuesday, that makes it easier to organise events that help people volunteer, fundraise, and do good work in their communities using Twitter. Inspired by his experience of sparking off the cleanup after last years’ riots, Dan wanted to make it easy for people to make something good happen with the minimum of fuss.
As well as Dan and Trudy, we’ll be joined by Gaia Marcus (@la_gaia) our social network analysis expert, who can tell you more about how the RSA is exploring communities by understanding their connections. Last night she was showing off Social Mirror, a Nominet-funded RSA project she’s leading to develop cutting-edge tools for just that purpose.
Ben Dellot (@BenedictDel), who wrote our report this week on the informal economy and organised our workshop with young entrepreneurs will be on hand to talk about his research, and any other aspects of our enterprise programme. And finally, Sevra Davis (@RSADesignAwards) can answer your questions about the RSA student design awards, which challenge students to put their design skills to a socially-beneficial use.
I hope you’ll join them at 2pm on the Twitter hashtag #RSAFriday, and find out more about how social change happens at the RSA. For now, though, I want to leave you with a vote of thanks. This week has been all about explaining and celebrating the work that happens at the RSA. Nothing we do would happen without the support of our Fellows, our partners, and the people who read, discuss and shout about our work. We hope it’s been half as enjoyable for you as it has for us.
It’s a commonplace that the world is ever-more well-connected. It’s less clear what we should do with this knowledge. The RSA has pioneered the use of social network analysis to understand how people relate to each other in their communities, and use that knowledge to help improve them. In this instalment of my week of blogs about how Fellows and staff at the RSA are creating social change, I’m going to talk about some of the implications of this work.
For us, understanding social networks isn’t just about seeing how a community works: it’s also a way of empowering people. If you have a better sense of how your social connections affect your life – for better and for worse – you can make more informed choices, and support those around you to do so too.
Our work with people in recovery from problematic drug and alcohol use is a powerful example of how the RSA is putting these ideas into practice. In partnership with the national treatment provider CRI and Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, we’re working to help people break out of cycles of addiction, with the RSA’s Fellows in Kent at the centre of the work.
In their 2010 report Whole Person Recovery – a user-centred approach to problem drug use, Rebecca Daddow and Steve Broome from the RSA’s Action and Research Centre made the case that successful recovery from drug and alcohol problems involves a range of reinforcing factors – and that one of the most important is a strong network of support. (An RSA Fellow, Tony Hodgson, was instrumental in developing the commissioning framework for recovery set out in the report, and a wider group of Fellows advised the project throughout.)
The insights from this work animate the work Rebecca now is leading in West Kent, and her team started with the aim of addressing the barriers to a healthy, happy, and supportive community which includes both people in recovery and those who are not. The original aim was to create recovery alliances: local community groups that would connect people in recovery to others, and especially to RSA Fellows.
In practice, this approach faced some challenges. In particular, Rebecca and her team found that asking volunteers to join a loose alliance wasn’t specific enough; this was particularly the case with Fellows, who are keen to give their time but want to work on something where they can make a specific and tangible contribution. In response to this, the team’s focus is shifting to strengthening networks in a more one-to-one basis, and they’re establishing a timebank to help Fellows and people in recovery give and receive services, and thereby meet each others’ needs.
It’s an object lesson in the challenges that come with making the best possible use of volunteers, but this new approach aims to provide specific support within the network. One recent example is that after being contacted by a key worker the team have been able to identify an RSA Fellow who may be able to provide relevant career advice to their client.
You can find out more about the RSA’s work on recovery on our website. If you’d like to stay informed, or if you live locally and would like to participate in the time banking scheme, email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the monthly Whole Person Recovery newsletter. And if you’re interested in finding out more about our work on social network analysis, the RSA’s social network analysis expert Gaia Marcus will be participating in a Twitter Q&A on Friday between 2pm and 3pm – do follow @theRSAorg or check out #RSAFriday for more information.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.
Today we published a new report by Adam Lent that argues a new generation of entrepreneurial young people will help us navigate a period of economic transition we are entering – one that places a heavy onus on individual creation. One finding particularly stands out: today’s 18-29 year-olds are much keener to start a business than has been the case in the past. In this sense at least, the rhetoric of an entrepreneurial generation is more than just talk.
The harder question is the prospect of this generation realising their ambitions – and what support they need. This is the focus of a growing theme of work for the RSA, and through workshops today and a major debate we’ve explored the prospects of the millennial generation.
We began this morning with a workshop organised by my colleagues Ben Dellot and Julian Thompson, inviting organisations that help people into work to come and talk about the challenge of employability – rarely a more acute problem than it is today. One of the observations the group made was that good models for helping people into work aren’t in short supply: in fact, there have been plenty over the years that have been adopted but then ran out of steam – often when the government that championed them lost power.
It was pointed out that the RSA can play a very important role here. As a politically independent charity with good partners and a diverse Fellowship, we are well-placed to help share successful practice in the sector, and also to provide a non-partisan voice advocating it.
This reflects a theme of our developing work around enterprise, which is co-operation. The enterprise sector is tremendously crowded, and this is particularly true of young enterprise, which was the theme of yesterday’s second workshop. There’s no shortage of organisations working with young people to help to pursue their ambitions: in fact, we’re lucky to work with some of them –UpRising and UnLtd, for instance – as partners.
We think one of the best contributions the RSA can make here is to map out what’s available, and start to identify what’s missing – and the workshop today that brought together RSA Fellows, young entrepreneurs and support organisations was the first step in that. We’re working with the Royal Bank of Scotland to develop a series of workshops around the country (of which today’s was the first), working with these groups to identify the gaps in provision that prevent twenty-somethings from realising their ambition to set up a business.
One place we might very well start is with the projects our Fellows are already leading. RSA Fellows Kate Welch and Rebecca Howard drew on funding from our Catalyst fund to set up Reap and Sow, a social enterprise that works with people in prison to produce well-designed furniture. It’s a sustainable business model, but also one that provides offenders with help in seeking employment upon release, and takes a wider interest in their resettlement in the community – indeed they are seeking to do further work with ex-offenders as their work develops.
If you’re an RSA Fellow and have an ingenious thought about how to address a social problem, there’s lots of advice on applying for Catalyst on our website. And if you’d like to be kept informed about the follow-up from today’s workshops, get in touch with me (sam dot thomas at rsa.org.uk) and we’ll keep you posted.
This week, the RSA throws open the doors of its refurbished House on John Adam Street for a packed week of events and workshops. From our President’s lecture tonight by Richard Florida to the chance to meet the illustrator behind RSA Animate, this is a public celebration of our work, and we’d love you to join in online (more on that later). It’s also a timely opportunity to talk about the practical ways that the RSA supports positive social change, and I’ll be exploring this in a series of blog posts this week.
Throughout its long history, the RSA has been animated by the thought that society can change for the better through the efforts of those who belong to it. Our programme of work is a practical expression of that belief: it combines the strength of our 27,000-strong Fellowship, the depth of our research and project expertise, and our strong reputation as a platform for informed public debate.
We’re lucky to have a diverse team of dedicated staff who spend every day testing new ways of tackling our most pressing policy challenges – from how education can realise leaners’ potential to how communities can diagnose and solve their problems. We’re acknowledging the growing influence and impact of this work by bringing these efforts under the umbrella of the RSA Action and Research Centre, launching this week.
Increasingly, though, our Fellows are shaping their own response to these challenges, working through the RSA in their communities and professions. This week I want to draw your attention to some of the areas where our practical policy research is being supported and enriched by help from our Fellowship.
We believe ideas are powerful, and that the RSA is the best place in the world to have them
Ultimately, our ambition is to be an organisation that generates and nurtures ideas, tests them in practice, and then ensures they can have the biggest possible impact. In short, we believe ideas are powerful, and that the RSA is the best place in the world to have them.
Realising an ambition this big will never be an easy task. RSA Fellows and staff are still discovering how they can work best together, and exploring how the Fellowship can grow as a community based not on mutual self-interest, but on reciprocity and a shared commitment to social progress.
Tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at our work on enterprise, as we launch a new report on the subject and host a day of workshops looking at the issues it raises. In the meantime, read on for details of all the fantastic events that are coming up this week, and how you can get involved.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.
A while back, I wrote here about a workshop organised by London-based RSA Fellows looking at issues affecting young people. One of the projects discussed then was a collaboration between two RSA Fellows who have been working together to pool their very different skills.
Matthew Gansallo from the Natural History Museum runs the Young Graduates for Museums and Galleries (YGMG) programme, which aims to open up access to employment in the sector. He’s collaborated with Rob Reed, a talented freelance illustrator, to produce a guide to London’s free museums and galleries that features writing from young people who have participated in the programme.
You can leaf through the booklet online at your leisure to read the contributors’ descriptions and see Rob’s fantastic illustrations. Matthew and Rob are keen to find sponsors who can help them get the booklet into print, and hope to do this while the spotlight is on London this summer, so if you’re able to point them in the right direction then do get in touch with Matthew by email.
I’ll leave you with Gabriella Quartin (one of the contributors) describing a venerable institution just up the road from the RSA…
I love paintings, I love photographs, and I love portraiture. The National Portrait Gallery is the only place where I can honestly say that walking into a room and having a bunch of dead people looking at me, doesn’t fill me with absolute fear.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.
A popular brand of cereal was once accompanied by the slogan “central heating for kids”. In the television advertisements (which have become something of a classic) children leave the house with an uncanny red glow, the visual token of the benefits of a good breakfast.
It seems 70s ad executives knew more than they thought. There’s a persuasive body of research that suggests eating a healthy breakfast in the morning has a range of positive effects on a child’s ability to learn. Many schools have started to offer breakfast clubs, both in reaction to this evidence and in order to boost attendance.
RSA Fellow Laura Billings cites this evidence in the introduction to her short report Beyond Breakfast, which describes a project she’s undertaken in Willesden, North London with funding from the RSA’s Catalyst seed fund. She worked in partnership with charity Magic Breakfast, who provide free breakfasts to over 200 primary schools across the country (their generous support enabled Laura to work on the project).
Laura aimed to investigate whether a school breakfast club could create opportunities for learning in the wider community, as well as helping children get through the school day. As she puts it: “’fuel for learning’ [Magic Breakfast’s slogan] could be argued to include not only a nutritional breakfast, but also quality schooling, parental involvement and community social capital. And this involves us all”.
You can see Laura describe the project in the video above, but her idea at its simplest is to use the breakfast club as an excuse to ask parents a question: what would you like to learn? Drawing on the work of American academic Dr. Jerry Stein and his Learning Dreams project, Laura and Michelle (a teacher at the school) tried to connect parents who wanted to learn something with people in the local community who could teach them.
The first parent they met, for example, was Ngenarr, who said she wanted to dance. Laura and Michelle helped to find a local teacher who could teach a class at the school, and other parents at the school helped to organise and promote the sessions. As this suggests, where the project becomes really interesting is in its potential to create links between members of the community.
The relationship between a school, a child and their parent is necessarily focussed on certain kinds of activity, mostly related to formal education. Laura’s aim was to show that there are opportunities to create connections between parents and other members of the community that can support a different kind of learning, accessible to parents as well as children. What’s more, she hoped that this could point to a more sustainable model for breakfast clubs, as a collaborative undertaking between a school and its community.
In her clear-eyed evaluation of the project’s impact (which is concise and worth reading in full) Laura acknowledges that making connections isn’t an easy thing to do: building relationships of trust requires time and patience, and isn’t easily done in the confines of a busy school day. Laura’s suggestion is that creating a new kind of common space is the next step, with activities determined by the local community – with healthy breakfasts as a way to welcome people in and create a warm atmosphere.
This echoes the findings of the RSA’s Connected Communities work in New Cross Gate, where surveys and interviews indicated the importance of local community hubs – pubs, cafes and community centres – in sustaining local social networks, and providing opportunities for interaction between people who would otherwise not meet.
Of course, a ‘hub’ is only as useful as the people use it, and creating a physical space – no matter how well intentioned – is no panacea. However, what Laura’s project shows is that the idea of something universal and easily grasped, like the need for a decent breakfast, can start a chain of helpful social connections.
She admits she didn’t see the project ending up that way, which is perhaps the thing I like best about it. Beyond Breakfast began with the problem of a hungry belly and ended with something else entirely: the idea that learning can spread through a community like water through pipes. Perhaps the ad men weren’t so far off the mark, and even a little modest: a good breakfast can be central heating for all of us.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.
Students leaving school today face a daunting set of challenges, not least a competitive job market and a crowded university admissions process. These circumstances put students under great pressure to make the right decisions, and a project funded by our Catalyst seed fund has tested a new approach to helping students think clearly and realistically about their options.
The Transitions Programme, led by RSA Fellow Ingrid Wassenaar, delivered a pilot programme working with four schools from the RSA Family of Academies. The starting point for Ingrid and her team (Zella King and Jon Harris) were the findings of Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education. One of her report’s central themes was the difficulty faced by students in navigating the complex system of post-16 options.
In such an environment, argues Ingrid, good information about options alone isn’t enough. “What are needed in order to process this extraordinary amount of information are thinking skills,” she says. “Young people need to strengthen their sorting, analytical, and interpretive muscles in order to stay focused on their dreams, weed out what is non-information, and assess what is really viable, really desirable, and really future-proof in terms of their unfolding careers.”
The team’s response was to provide six workshops focussing on the skills that young people need to make sound decisions. Four of these focussed on skill areas: creative problem-solving; critical thinking and feedback; personal networks and persuasive speaking. These were supplemented by two one-on-one sessions with students, one looking at their progress to date, and another at their future ambitions.
The report on the pilot programme (Word document) provides a rich seam of qualitative feedback from the students, many of whom seem to have found the programme useful in thinking more clearly about their options. Some of the responses hint at a deep uncertainty, with one student admitting: “I want to know what I want to do, and do it, not experiment. I’m unsure, not frightened, but not looking forward to the future.”
The session on personal networks showed me that who you know and who they know is interesting, analysing what kind of group you are in.
- student feedback
It’s clear from the feedback that the workshop facilitators initially struggled to persuade students of the worth of the programme. In particular, they questioned why the workshops (particularly those on problem-solving and critical thinking skills) were relevant to their career decisions. Once this had been overcome though, many students developed a broader view of their options. For instance, one commented: “The session on personal networks showed me that who you know and who they know is interesting, analysing what kind of group you are in.”
The single biggest issue with a project like this, as the project team acknowledge in the report, is that it is time-intensive and therefore expensive to deliver. The Catalyst funding provided support for travel, accommodation and materials, but no compensation for the facilitators’ time. For this reason, “the programme is unsustainable in its current form”. This said, in the context of the abolition of the Connexions careers service, the Department for Education has said that schools now have more freedom over how they deliver face-to-face careers advice. Ingrid will maintain the relationships with the RSA Academies, and would be keen to hear from any Fellows who are interested in helping develop the programme further (you can contact her at email@example.com).
More generally, though, Ingrid’s project shows how effective Catalyst can be in helping to test out a new approach to a social problem – if you’d like to know more, information on the fund and how to apply is available on our website.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s Project Engagement Manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.