Future TalentEd Summer Term 2020 Summer 2020 - Page 18

SPEAKERS FOR SCHOOLS Robert Peston: Inspiring all young people to thrive in a new world of work Despite a long and successful career in journalism, Robert Peston’s single proudest achievement is founding Speakers For Schools. In an exclusive interview with Future TalentEd, he explains how his education charity is helping to support young people during lockdown and how coronavirus may change the world of work. Words: Sarah Wild “Education has always been close to my heart,” says journalist and presenter Robert Peston. “I went to Highgate Comprehensive in north London in the 1970s, and I’ve always been a great believer in state education, and particularly the comprehensive system. Moving from print to broadcast journalism in 2006 boosted his visibility, and his commentary on the 2008 banking crisis for the BBC made him a household name. “At that point, I started to receive invitations to speak in schools,” he explains. “And all of them came from privileged schools such as Eton, Winchester and Westminster. But the kind of school I went to didn’t get in touch. “I went on Eton’s website and saw that every week distinguished people – from former prime ministers to trade union leaders – would speak to the boys. Having access to individuals who were leaders in their field, with extraordinary knowledge of the world, reinforced all the advantages of their school. I thought ‘this isn’t fair; these people should go and talk in state schools too!’’ A little research revealed a combination of barriers for the state sector. “The teachers were ludicrously busy and didn’t have the time to think about these kind of extracurricular activities,” explains Peston. Quite often they didn’t have the confidence or the networks either. “And there was something even worse,” he notes. “When a public school got in touch with someone like me, they assumed you would do it for nothing – almost that you would regard it as a privilege to talk to their pupils. Whereas state schools would occasionally approach people, but they would quite often go through their agents and would end up paying them quite large sums of money to speak.” Having phoned a range of his contacts (“one of the things about being a journalist is that I know thousands of people!”) and ascertained that most would be keen to speak in state schools, Peston partnered with the Education and Employers Taskforce to set up a website. “Essentially, it was a dating agency between schools and live speakers. Schools would pick from the list, we would make arrangements with the speaker, and it just took off. The schools were keen to have inspirational speakers and the speakers enjoyed being asked challenging questions by young people.” “I think the relative value of jobs is going to change. We’ve learned much more about the value of public services” Virtual talks and work experience Today, Speakers for Schools is an independent entity, providing some 1,200 speaker sessions last year; over its 10-year history it has so far reached more than 900,000 students. Its extensive speaker directory crosses industries and specialisms, ranging from CEOs of major companies to national journalists, arts people, scientists, leading entrepreneurs and academics. Notable names include particle physician and TV presenter professor Brian Cox, former prime minister Theresa May, Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern. During lockdown, its virtual programme maintains young people’s access to inspirational talks; Oscar-nominated writer and director Armando Iannucci was one recent online participant. However, Peston is keen to run ‘live, physical’ talks in schools as soon as social-distancing rules allow. “If you’ve grown up in a jobless household and don’t have people telling you that you can aim high and that you matter, the motivating effect of having a powerful, successful person come to your school and talk to you directly is really important,” he stresses. For now, the charity’s work experience programme has also gone virtual, with tasks set and assessed by leading firms over video calls. Signed up employers including Cisco, the Opera Holland Park, Marie Curie and BP. Projects are designed to be practical and engaging; for example, recent work experience with Morgan Sindall involved young people coming up with designs for a building in the Middle East. Prior to lockdown, a physical experience involved students making puppets and running creative workshops with children when they joined north London’s Little Angel puppet theatre for a week. The aim is to help level the playing field for young people from all backgrounds and to give them “an equal chance to make the most of themselves”. “It had bugged me for ages how unfair the allocation of work experience was,” recalls Peston. “Routinely, in TV and newspapers, a mate would ring up and say, ‘can my kid come and work with you?’. It’s quite hard to say no, but it isn’t fair that the work experience goes to kids simply because they have parents who have a network. Also, when kids are doing it because mum or dad has asked them to, they often don’t really want to be here. They don’t get much out of it and the organisation doesn’t give enough thought to what the experience might be either. “Speakers for Schools works with employers to help them offer work experience that is valuable, and because the kids we get are often from more challenging backgrounds, they’re excited to be learning about the world of work and the opportunities. The businesses themselves say that these kids are making a contribution to the culture and morale of their organisation.” The outlook for young people In addition to talks provided by inspiring individuals, themed series’ provide insights into issues such as ‘the world of work in 2030’ and the skills needed to thrive. “For example, resilience and adaptability,” says Peston. “We’re living through unprecedented industrial change with the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence. It’s affecting every kind of work. And we’re going to live through a new series of massive changes to how we work brought about by this virus. I suspect there will be many more people working permanently from home. That’s an interesting thing for young people to think about. “I also think the relative value of jobs is going to change. We’ve learned much more about the value of public services. Healthcare is one area where there will be richer and better-paid opportunities, and in education too, because we’re learning how important preparing children for the changing world is going to be. “I think it’s going to feel a bit like it did after the Second World War,” he continues. “We’ve seen the importance of the state sector in getting us through this, and I suspect there will be more jobs in the coming years in the public sector, which will grow significantly larger relative to the private sector. It doesn’t mean fewer good jobs, but it does mean that where and what those jobs are will change.” The charity’s impact 50% of Speakers for Schools’ activity is with the top 40% highest-need schools 70% of its events take place outside of London 93% of state-school teachers said that hosting an external speaker helped to broaden students’ aspirations about potential jobs 80% said that talks encourage pupils to believe in their skills and abilities Greater job security and collective action Peston is quick to acknowledge the inequalities experienced by young people today. “The gap between the wealth and power of older people versus young people has widened way too much over the past 15-20 years,” he admits, referencing spiralling house prices. Working conditions have become “much more precarious. We’ve moved to a world of freelance and short-term or zero-hours contracts, and less job security. There is a greater onus on young people to make their own way in the world, rather than being helped by big institutions for whom they might work for decades. Some of that, I think, is going to change due to the events we’ve been living through. “One of the important lessons we’ve learned is that we’re stronger when we work collectively. I think we will see a return to more job security and collective action to help people experiencing challenges. I suspect some of what’s happening will create institutional structures, which will mean that young people feel a bit less isolated, alone and precarious.” “The key thing is for younger people to invest in themselves, to take their education seriously” Despite the unique obstacles faced by gen Z, he is optimistic that good jobs and rewarding careers will be available and that some conditions may even change for the better. “We’re a rich country,” he says. “We don’t know the pace at which the economy will recover, but it will recover. There will be challenging times, but if I were a younger person, I wouldn’t be too disheartened because there will be plenty of opportunities, particularly with this industrial revolution, the rise of these technologies. The key thing is for younger people to invest in themselves, to take their education seriously. I’m not remotely trying to minimise the challenges they face, but they also shouldn’t be too disheartened, because we will find a way.” Learning to motivate yourself While he is clear that his own generation has “a responsibility to make sure that kids don’t suffer excessive damage as a result of this health and economic crisis”, he believes young people can help themselves by “having the discipline to do the work they are set by their schools, but also to do more. I realise that if you don’t have broadband at home, or a laptop, these are fine words from me, but all I’d say is ‘do what you can with whatever resources you’ve got’.” He adds that school closures are teaching young people both to value education and how to work on their own. “The most important thing I learned as I was growing up was how to motivate myself. That’s incredibly helpful to your employability. Millions of kids are having to learn how to work without supervision. The more of a self-motivator and a self-starter you are, the more employable you’ll become.” SPEAKERS FOR SCHOOLS Speakers for Schools’ Inspiration Programme provides a network of today’s most inspiring figures across business, arts, politics and more donating their time to help inspire students to fuel their ambition. All state-maintained secondary schools, colleges and academies in the UK are eligible to apply for a speaker free of charge. Its Experience Programme connects schools with industry-leading employers for work experience placements and insight days. Virtual talks and work experience are also available.