Inspiring the Future: three milestones and what they mean

Inspiring the Future (www.inspiringthefuture.org) is the free service provided by Education & Employers which allows UK state schools and colleges to connect online with employee volunteers to support young people across a wide range of activities, stretching from short careers talks to being a school governor.

During the month of October 2015, three important milestones were reached. The number of:

  • individual volunteers registering passed 25,000.
  • individual schools with registered teachers passed 5,000 – including 80% of all secondary schools in England.
  • first messages from teachers to volunteers inviting them to get involved with the school or college passed 100,000.

In October, too, we were able to confirm that young people have interacted with volunteers through Inspiring the Future between its launch in July 2012 and July 2015 on more than 825,000 occasions.

These are big numbers of which the team at Inspiring the Future is rightfully proud, but they are also important numbers in the fifty year history of employer engagement in UK education – for two key reasons.

Firstly, research has become clear that one of the main benefits that young people can receive from interactions with employers is the opportunity to gain new and useful information about how the world of work relates to them and their schooling.  Young people listen to employee volunteers intently and, especially when they have no ulterior motives (they aren’t, for example, trying to sell them a particular course or training provider), find what they have to say to be inherently trustworthy.  The more interactions a young person has, the more likely it is that they will pick up trusted information which is also useful to them.  In this way, employer engagement is best seen as a form of social capital – a resource which has ultimate value in the workplace. What we see is young people broadening their awareness of what the labour market has to offer and developing their confidence to pursue career aspirations which most closely match their interests, capabilities and ambitions. We see young people with higher volumes of teenage employer engagement going on to earn more as young adults – because (presumably) they are better fits for the jobs they occupy, being more productive in them.

What the research literature suggests is that employer engagement is most effectively delivered within the context of impartial, professional careers advice (maximising the chances of young people being able to make the most out of the new insights they seek and are exposed to) and that a lot of a little has a significant impact on later outcomes.

Our surveys of Inspiring the Future teachers agree with the research literature.  While more than 20% of volunteers say they go on to form an ongoing relationship with a school after an initial approach through the programme, the model is predicated on volunteers occasionally helping out in a local school for a short duration event (Give an hour a year to make a difference).  How much impact can such an interaction have? Very high proportions of 300+ teachers with first hand experience say ‘a lot’:

Thinking about the year group or groups you are most familiar with, please review the following statement: ‘Following activities with Inspiring the Future volunteers, I have observed improvements in student …’

A littleA lotAll (Any improvement)
Confidence34%41%75%
Motivation38%45%83%
Aspiration42%42%84%
Attainment29%38%67%
Participation in classroom26%34%60%
Understanding of options post 1636%39%75%
Understanding of the value of education & qualifications39%42%78%
Understanding of career pathways 38%43%81%
Understanding of employer recruitment processes37%38%75%
Understanding of the world of work36%47%83%
Employability skills34%46%80%

 

The second reason why these October numbers are so important is that they demonstrate that a wholly new means of connecting schools with workplaces works in ways which are efficient, effective and equitable.

Inspiring the Future is based on the premise that people in work have things of value to offer young people, their teachers and schools. And, that if it is made easy for them to offer what they have (information, experience, skills) to schools, very many of them will respond if simply asked.  This is not a new idea, but what is new is how Inspiring the Future has addressed the key transactional cost of finding those people willing to help.  The Inspiring the Future model recognises that, in any community, there are thousands and thousands of people who would be happy to be approached by a local school. Not all of them will ultimately say yes, but without knowing who is willing to entertain the question and what they might have to offer, the challenges to schools are huge.  The key cost in employer engagement in education is finding people willing and able to respond well to the question.  With Inspiring the Future, working through an enormous array of employers, professional bodies and trade unions, the volunteers simply identify themselves – and now more than 25,000 have chosen to do so and taken five minutes to tell local teachers what they might have to offer pupils.

It is one thing to have volunteers available online, but altogether something different to ensure that the thing they have of value is made use of by schools. Will schools respond?  Our October numbers show that they will and that every day that they do.

Inspiring the Future makes the teacher the customer.  It works on the assumption that there is no one better placed to understand, and respond to, the needs of pupils. It gives them choice over who they bring into the classroom, when they choose to do so and what sort of activities they decide put on.  With teachers showing more influence over the employer engagement, we would expect interactions to better respond to the needs of pupils.  It is likely to be for this reason that surveyed teachers with a view think, by a ratio of 8 to 1, that volunteers available through Inspiring the Future are ‘better’ than traditional programmes.

With minimal barriers to getting involved, Inspiring the Future has rapidly become a commonplace element of British schooling.  More than 825,000 interactions have now taken place between young people and Inspiring the Future volunteers and the unit cost (once development costs have been stripped out) comes in at around £2 per connection (and is falling all the time), making it both a highly effective and unprecedentedly efficient means of linking education and employment at scale.

More than this, with schools and volunteers now registered across the whole country, it is possible to run low cost, high impact national campaigns.  Inspiring the Future has the ability to target geographic areas where need is greatest; occupational areas and training routes where demand from young people is weak (Apprenticeships, healthcare); and, address issues like gender stereotyping (through our Inspiring Women campaign) where barriers are common.

National coverage allows the small national team to harness and direct the thing of value that volunteers are happy to give – in academic terms, it socialises the social capital and turn the private willingness to give something back into a public good, helping to compensate for where social capital is weakest.

Inspiring the Future represents a wholly new way of using technology to enhance educational experiences.  It is the disruptive technology of its sector – fundamentally changing the way that schools and employers interact.  As of October 2015, through Inspiring the Future, teachers can find volunteers willing to:

  • Speak about their job and careers with specialists who know about Apprenticeships, running an enterprise, and use of 20 different Modern Foreign Languages, Maths, Sciences and a growing range of other subjects at work
  • Offer help with CVs and Interview practice
  • Find out more about being a Governor, Reading Partner or Number Partner
  • Return to their old school as an alumni

Over years to come the menu will grow and, with barriers connecting the two sides significantly reduced, a narrowing in the gap, which over the last generation has grown, can be expected between the worlds of education and employment.  By making it easy and aligning with wider interests, the best instincts of volunteers and teachers are harnessed to help young people to go through their schooling and into the world of work with better understanding of what the labour market has to offer, greater confidence in pursuing informed ambitions and with experience which really does make a difference in recruitment. And all along employers signal better to young people what they have to offer and how they will be able to best compete for vacancies.   Inspiring the Future is one of the rare beasts of public policy: everyone really does win.

Why does the design work so well?  Because initial funding from government gave the developers of Inspiring the Future sufficient time and space to take a hard look at the research evidence and to work closely with the key national bodies representing employers and schools and with scores of individuals working in all aspects of employer engagement in education to really understand the ‘delivery chain’ and how a small investment in technology can, if presented in the right ways, make a world of difference for young people.

Links:

A short video on how Inspiring the Future works:

Anthony Mann’s blog on the costs of traditional funding for employer engagement in education: https://www.educationandemployers.org/research/how-much-does-it-cost-to-engage-employers-in-education/

Anthony Mann and Christian Percy in the Journal of Education and Work on earnings premiums linked to higher volume teenage employer engagement: https://www.educationandemployers.org/research/employer-engagement-in-british-secondary-education-wage-earning-outcomes-experienced-by-young-adults/

Profound employer engagement: what it is and options for scaling it up https://www.educationandemployers.org/research/profound-employer-engagement-in-education-what-it-is-and-options-for-scaling-it-up-october-2013/

Key issues in employer engagement in education: why it makes a difference and how to deliver it at scale https://www.educationandemployers.org/research/key-issues-in-employer-engagement-in-education/