Employability skills: Unlocking Talent and Potential

Written by: Phil Crompton | Published:
Hands-on: Trent Academies Group students present their ideas for the Nottingham City Housing project as part of the Unlocking Talent and Potential initiative

Unlocking Talent and Potential is an employability and skills programme being run alongside local employers by three schools in Nottingham. Phil Crompton explains how it works

Every year the CBI tells us there is a huge school-employer mismatch; that young people lack essential employability skills.

Surely we all know there is no point in turning out pupils who have sheaves of GCSEs and A levels if they have no idea how to apply them in the real world?

This year I decided to stop listening and start acting on the CBI’s warnings – a concerted campaign to address the issue head-on in the three schools I run.

Of course the real root of the problem is that schools are measured against how well pupils do in traditional curriculum areas which bear little relation to what’s happening in the world of work. There is a place for core academic study, but in my view a GCSE in resilience or running your own business would not go amiss. Sadly this is unlikely to happen. So what’s the next best thing?

For The Trent Academies Group, it came in the form of Unlocking Talent and Potential, a new model of school-employer partnership which has been trialled in a number of UK academies. It’s a far cry from the usual employer involvement in schools.

Guest speakers, often talking about stuff unrelated to lessons. Disjointed. Forgettable. After 10 minutes students are bored. Or work experience, valuable yes, but difficult and costly to tailor effectively for every student.

Instead, it is an integrated approach, which incorporates employer input into existing study modules. It helps teachers bring traditional curriculum subjects alive and makes learning more relevant to what’s needed in today’s and tomorrow’s world.

The project needed to be a strategic priority not an add-on. I gathered 12 faculty heads and asked them to try out the approach. I made it clear there would be a group-wide commitment to it and I personally led on the project along with Caroline Tomlinson, who has specific responsibility for employability. Gerard Liston, who originally developed the Unlocking Talent and Potential model, helped us get it off the ground.

To give us a milestone to aim for I scheduled an employability INSET for all 400 of my staff nine months down the line to share the experiences across the group. I must confess that I was taken aback by how much enthusiasm there was for this new way of working on the day of the INSET.

Teachers stood up and talked passionately about how lessons had been brought to life and how pupils had found new interest in subjects which had previously switched them off. Colleagues were inspired and keen to try it too. Finally we had found a way to develop employability through the curriculum, not in spite of it. For other schools interested in trying this approach, here’s what we learnt along the way...

App-lied knowledge: A student works on his app development as part of the MultiPie partnership

Work out what you need

Schools often try to find an employer to partner with and then work out what to do with them. It is the wrong way round. The first step is for teachers to consider what’s needed in their subject areas. We got each faculty to look at the issues they were facing, what work they were planning, and they were quick to pinpoint schemes of work where employer input could bring it to life.

For example, our languages department said pupils couldn’t see the point of what they were learning. We approached a local hotel who challenged the pupils to produce leaflets in French and German for foreign guests. It made all the difference.

We also had pupils who loved learning languages but lacked confidence to try out conversation skills. They were offered the chance to help out at a tapas bar during its monthly cultural evening and were buzzing after talking to diners and restaurant staff in Spanish.

Which businesses will help?

Considering whether any existing business partners can help is an obvious starting point. We had an established relationship with a leading producer of Bags for Life, and through working with them we have created a new dimension to a textiles course.

For the most part though we sought new business links. It is important to consider which local businesses have expertise closely related to the study units you want to improve and be prepared to approach quite a few as some will be more willing than others. We were surprised to find smaller businesses were among the most eager to help.

There’s lots in it for them too

Approaching local businesses isn’t as daunting as it sounds. It is really just about having good communication skills and confidence. Gerard’s advice was don’t take the begging bowl approach, tell them “this is how you can help children at a school near you”.

Some companies have social responsibility objectives or even volunteering programmes which you can tap into but even if they don’t many are interested in supporting the local community.

In fact it is far from a one-way street. There are often direct benefits for businesses. For the tapas bar, it was a no-brainer – the supply of three willing workers who added authenticity to their cultural evening and attracted more customers. Who says students can’t contribute something worthwhile to a real business?

Some of the landscape design ideas our students came up with for a Nottingham housing project are now set to be incorporated into the actual development. And companies can often get good PR out of the link-ups too.

Defined roles and responsibilities

Employers are far more likely to respond favourably if you go to them with a clear, well-thought-through proposition. They’ll want to know what you need from them, when and how much time it will take and what role the school will play.

Our model is appealing to employers because it is an efficient way of working with them, led by the school. They don’t have to be a fish out of water speaking to an army of unimpressed teenagers, with three hours of prep required beforehand. And they don’t have to come up with a week-long work experience schedule. In fact in many cases it requires no preparation from them at all. Yet the impact is still considerable.

Each of our business link projects have been a bit different but in many cases we just asked them to do short video interviews about what they do, and to provide a few resources such as data sheets, examples of finished products etc. In some cases they attended launch events to lay down a challenge for pupils and celebration events to view results and judge winners, or they did informal questions and answer sessions. But what appealed to them all without exception was that the roles of teacher and employer were appropriately defined, with each in their area of expertise.

When developers from a computing firm came in to give feedback on apps our pupils had designed, the pupils were hanging off every word. The developers said they loved the experience. As long as you don’t push them out of their comfort zone employers can get a lot out of working with young people.

Is this just more work for teachers?

It is true that this model of school-employer partnership does require more leg work from teachers but that’s a big reason why it works. In the same way that any good lesson needs careful planning, teachers will need to invest a bit of time in going to employers’ premises, doing video interviews, collecting resources, arranging launch/celebration events etc. But it really pays off.

Once the groundwork has been done they’ll also be able to re-use any materials/resources generated. Initially Gerard and Caroline kicked things off for us but as teachers have started to see the potential they have increasingly taken over responsibility.

Champion the cause and build capacity

The INSET event provided the perfect high-profile celebration and an ideal chance to get other teachers on board. The benefits came over loud and clear – pupils were more engaged and teachers were finding their subjects more rewarding to teach. Rather than turn to page 56 of a text book, pupils had a real employer talking to them via video or in person and laying down a challenge.

When teachers set a challenge, pupils often drag their heels and need chasing to hand in work. When an employer, who pupils regard as an external expert, sets a challenge and says they are coming into school on certain date to see results, it is amazing how all the pupils get the work finished on time!

Now we are moving from first projects to getting every department involved and embedding it in the culture of the school. The early adopter teachers are working alongside other teachers as they set up their own business links. One head of D&T is so keen he’s decided to go through all his modules, and rather than using imaginary scenarios, see how he might apply the model to each one.

Pupils’ employability

Ultimately this is about helping young people to make more informed choices about their future and develop the skills they need to get the jobs they want. So there needs to be a robust assessment mechanism in place.

We conducted interviews with pupils at the end of each project and asked them to fill in self-assessment questionnaires. Pupils were able to articulate how each activity had helped them hone skills such as team-work and communication. We also found that it had helped them reflect on their future aspirations.

Our aim now is to develop a consistent method of assessment across every business link activity which will feed into a Trust-wide view of how well we are preparing pupils for the workplace.

Unlocking Talent and Potential in action

Modern foreign languages
Tapastry tapas bar in Nottingham holds a monthly Spanish cultural evening. To help create an authentic atmosphere, the owner invited A level Spanish students to chat to customers in Spanish while serving tapas. Small groups of year 12 students attend the evening on a rolling basis (see image below). The pupils also get to interview the Spanish musicians.

The pupil view: “It was great to be plunged into the culture of Spain. We learnt a lot about Spanish traditions which I knew nothing about before. It was also good for learning how to think on the spot and work under pressure.”

The teacher view: “The link has allowed students to use their language skills in a real situation. Having to interact readily with the customers, with the Spanish chef and the guitarist gave the students not only a real challenge but also a true sense of achievement, which has manifested itself in increased levels of motivation in the classroom.”

Nottingham app design company MultiPie supported year 9 pupils on a project to create a school mobile app using code. Programmers from MultiPie recorded a series of short video masterclasses offering tips and inspiration.

They then came into school to provide individual advice and feedback on the designs and to talk about programming as a career. Pupils were able to ask them about the skills needed for programming and the latest industry practices. The videos are now being used by the faculty on an on-going basis.

The pupil view: “I asked them which languages to learn and how to start an app business. I learnt that it’s harder than I thought to get into it but that’s made me more motivated.”

The teacher view: “It’s been inspirational for a few really keen pupils – they’re now coming back at break and lunch times.”

Design and technology
Housing association Nottingham City Housing and national construction firm Keepmoat Homes challenged pupils to come up with landscaping ideas for their new development of eco-houses. They supplied research materials, including architects drawings, site photos and building regs information.

The students used 3D design software and considered factors such as budget, cycle access, maintenance etc. Their plans were then presented and the best ones will influence the design.

The pupil view: “The pressure was really on. We knew we had to get the work finished and make it perfect as it could be used in the actual development.”

The teacher view: “The project has been a fantastic example of how D&T teachers can work with industry partners to provide pupils with a realistic design brief. Our department is now seeking to redesign aspects of the curriculum to give pupils more exposure to real challenges involving local businesses and manufacturers.”

  • Phil Crompton is CEO of The Trent Academies Group which consists of Rushcliffe School, Arnold Hill Academy and The Farnborough Academy.

Further information

If you want to find out more about Unlocking Talent and Potential, a website has been set up with case studies. It is constantly updated and schools are welcome to feed in with more of their own examples. It features a free online course to help teachers implement the model. Visit www.forum-talent-potential.org


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