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.
Students at one of the workshops
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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.