Interview: Jason Elsom, Speakers for Schools

Educate recently caught up with Jason Elsom, chief executive officer of Speakers for Schools, to find out more about the journey he’s been on since he joined the organisation and how its offering continued evolve throughout the pandemic.

How has Speakers for Schools evolved since you joined in 2019?

When I joined Speakers for Schools in 2019, I was joining a highly respected but rather quiet organisation. Speakers for Schools were doing incredible things but not enough people knew about it. So I worked with the team to carry out a rebrand, this really refreshed the programmes, brought clarity to our vision and goals and made a real splash in the sector with our new, vibrant branding.

I also found that the inspirational talks and the work experience programme was city-centric and neither were reaching smaller communities across the UK. To address this, we developed a strategy for virtual work experience and virtual talks in November 2019, well ahead of the pandemic, with the aim to take our programmes to the people that weren’t geographically close to the major cities. So when the pandemic hit the UK in March 2020, we were ready to support more young people, teachers, schools and parents by moving our programmes online rather seamlessly.

What are the organisation’s biggest achievements since it was founded in 2010?

Well our numbers are quite impressive:

• Over 650 employers and 1,500 eminent speakers
• Over 3,600 in-person and virtual talks since 2010
• Our team has grown from a team of 10 to 70

Since September 2020, we have offered 63,000 virtual work experience placements to young people and have delivered 500 talks with eminent speakers such as Gareth Southgate, Steve Backshall MBE, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and Big Narstie.

But there’s a lot more to Speakers for Schools than the numbers, we have an incredible amount of expertise in the organisation and we are all geared towards the same goal, of levelling the playing field for all young people. And my focus is on opening the minds of young people, particularly in places where there are the greatest barriers to social mobility, and our work experience and inspirational talks show young people what the world could offer them.

A rather recent achievement is the Youth Card, it’s been in the making since I joined Speakers for Schools in late 2019 and now we can proudly present the app as the Netflix of opportunities for young people. Packed with our work experience options, inspirational talks and discounts, it is an impressive feat of design and cross-charity collaboration with UK Youth and Young Enterprise.

With lockdown forcing businesses and schools to intermittently close, how has Speakers for Schools continued to offer talks and work experience during COVID-19?

We had been looking into facilitating virtual work experience before the pandemic but the start of last year certainly supercharged our plans and meant we had to implement it much sooner than expected. Luckily we were able to deliver our first virtual talks and work experience in April 2020.

As a result, we have filled 22,000 virtual work experience placements since the start of lockdown in March 2020 across a whole range of sectors, from construction, technology, finance, law, healthcare and many more. I think this demonstrates the generosity and kindness of our speakers and employers who have continued to support young people through these challenging times.

The pandemic has unarguably widened the attainment gap in the UK. How is Speakers for Schools working to address this and ensuring it is engaging with young people across all parts of the UK?

We work with schools and students with higher needs in a range of ways. The inspiration programme targets its support to high-need schools as a priority and we aim to offer at least one speaker per school per academic year. Work experience applications from young people in a high need school or, for example, on free school meals (FSM) or learning English as an additional language (EAL) are prioritised to employers when selecting their work experience placements.

And our broadcast talks are available to all schools everywhere.

And to keep these schools engaged and informed, we send weekly virtual work experience and talks bulletins to all schools.

Many would argue virtual work experience doesn’t provide the same ‘experience’ as in-person opportunities. Do you think this is true, or do you think virtual work experience has a future role?

When we first launched virtual work experience, neither the Gatsby Benchmarks nor the Careers and Enterprise Company recognised it as equal to in-person work experience. We have since worked closely with the Careers and Enterprise Company and were thrilled to see the Gatsby Benchmarks include virtual work experience. It is important for us that virtual work experience is meaningful and more than sitting and listening; students typically carry out project work, take part in polls, create presentations, and develop teamwork skills. From our recent NHS nurses work experience, 100% of students said they felt more informed about nursing and 86% would now consider a career in nursing.

Virtual work experience definitely has an important role in opening doors to young people as it removes some of the limitations which many young people would have faced, particularly those in perhaps more rural areas or from lower social economic backgrounds.

So we’re seeing young people in Wales suddenly being able to access work experience with a top law firm in central London and any student regardless of location can apply for work experience with the likes of Disney, Google, or the NHS. Hear some of the feedback from young people on our Instagram page.

What’s next for Speakers for Schools? What are your ambitions for the next few years?

Prior to pandemic, 100s of organisations in the UK worked in different ways to support young people, particularly in getting into the world of work. What the pandemic has taught us is that by working together we can achieve much more for the benefit of young people.

We are proud of what we have achieved in partnership with organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, UK Youth, Young Enterprise, Cornwall EBP, High Tide in Tees Valley, School Employer Connections in Northern Ireland, Cumbria LEP, and many more. I truly believe that through collaborative partnerships will we be able to bridge the gap that has grown in the last 18 months.

We look forward to working collaboratively with as many like-minded organisations as possible to prepare every young person for the future world of work.

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