Spark + Mettle, a start-up incorporated in May 2011, bills itself as an aspirations agency. Their pilot project in 2011-12 offers 13 less privileged young people aged 16–24 a free year-long launchpad programme. Called Star Track, it incorporates part-time training, career-focused networking and funded summer work placements.
The programme’s focus is on preparing young people who do not have the connections or the resources themselves to map and launch a career that they will love.
The programme is delivered for the most part online, as well as a number of face-to-face meetings during the year. It has been carefully designed so that it can stand alongside whatever else the young people are currently doing, while optimizing the 50 hours that young people, on average, spend on the online each week.
The Star Track programme seeks to address three key issues simultaneously:
- The increased use of the internet and digital media by young people for “non-productive” ends
- The dearth of opportunities for employment and employability training for young people from less privileged; backgrounds (some would characterise this as the problem of social mobility, but we do not believe that improving social mobility is the panacea to the UK’s social inequality); and
- The lack of teaching about resilience and other ‘soft’ skills that can contribute to flourishing.
The UK’s education system falls short in preparing young people to be competitive in the workforce. For the marginalised and the less privileged Spark+Mettle is an essential bridge between an under-resourced education and a fruitful, meaningful, engaged career.
Eugenie Teasley is the Founder and Chief Executive of Spark + Mettle. She first began developing the idea on returning to England after a stint in the USA and feeling shocked at the UK’s level of social stratification and the lack of social mobility. After almost two years of incubating the idea, the recent economic downturn and its effect on government support for young people propelled her to turn it into an organisation.
Spark + Mettle is working to help young people flourish. The Star Track programme is delivered over the course of the year, but the impacts you are hoping to see will last a lifetime. What does success look like for you, right now, during the piloting stage of your project? What about a little further into the future?
Success right now comes down to whether or not our young co-creators are getting anything from the programme and whether they think it’s ready to roll out to a wider cohort in September. So far, it’s looking good. If we can enable them to come into contact with new ideas, new people and new organisations who can help get them where they deserve to go, then we’re on the right track. And if they feel that it’s a two-way process, that they’re contributing to the programme rather than being passive receptacles, then we’re doing well.
Success also comes from being open about our mistakes and failures. We ask ourselves what we should change, what doesn’t work, what is utterly wrong or useless. I had a long email from one of the co-creators last week with a detailed critique of the programme. That means that, even though we’re not always right (far from it), there’s trust. And that counts for a whole lot.
A little further down the line, we’d be excited if the young people credited Star Track with a positive aspect of their life. We’re not chasing after hard outcomes, although of course we’ll track them. To us, for example, the programme won’t have succeeded if it just helps someone get any job. It has to be a good one: one that engages them fully, pays them fairly and contributes in some positive way to the UK or beyond. Saying that, we know that we can’t magic jobs out of the ground. So we also want to equip our young people with the creativity and resilience to make a job for themselves too.
Why is social mobility important in England? Why is it important during the ongoing financial crisis? Why is it important to the young people co-creating the Star Track programme?
OK so this is where I go get on my soap box. A 2010 OECD report ranks the UK as bottom for social mobility out of all its developed countries. That is shameful. And it looks as though inequality gap is widening. A 2005 report from the London School of Economics found that children born to poor families are now less likely to break free of their background than they were in the past. Furthermore, the Sutton Trust found that failing to improve low levels of social mobility could cost the UK economy up to £140 billion a year by 2050—or an additional 4% of Gross Domestic Product. The current economic crisis is only going to exacerbate the current situation.
But, if I’m allowed a moment of ideology, improving social mobility is not ultimately what Spark+Mettle is about. Because, in my mind, improved social mobility is just a band-aid solution to a much deeper, systemic social problem. I don’t want to support just the ‘best’ few kids who’ve had tough lives to climb the ladder into the professional class. Nope. That’s looking at social improvement through a rigid academic and hierarchical lens. My more radical aim would be to try to support people to find (or create) a good job that they love so that they feel proud of what they do—whether that’s carpentry or neuroscience.
What challenges are you coming up against while delivering an education programme online? What advice would you give to other organizations trying to take education, mobility, and empowerment agendas into the virtual space?
There are the technical glitches, of course, say if someone’s internet connection is down. But we’re pretty adept at working around that sort of stuff. We can always go old-school and speak on the phone… But in a way that’s minor. What’s harder to overcome, especially during the early days, is other people’s low expectations about the efficacy of our delivery model. One of the things that’s interesting about what we do is that we really are a blend of old-fashioned and new tech. I used to teach, and I still feel passionately about establishing strong interpersonal, face-to-face relationships through a programme such as this. It’s not all about avatars and gaming scenarios. So yes, we use online group video chat facilities, but through them we have these Socratic discussions. And we meet at least once a quarter off-line too. What’s amazing is the strength of the professional bond that is formed.
In terms of advice for other organisations? We started out with no cash, and there was no way we could build our own platform. And in fact I’m so glad we didn’t. We go to where the young people are. That’s one less obstacle to interaction and engagement. There’s no need to create more layers for them to get through. Facebook, YouTube etc: there’s tons of potential to harness these platforms for the good.
What is the next step for the Star Track programme? What is the next step for Spark + Mettle?
We’re two-thirds of the way through the pilot. Other than running the next term’s sessions, we’re also now connecting our young people to inspirational adults in their chosen career sectors, who can give them expert advice and insight. The final piece of the programme for each co-creators is the paid summer work placement. We’ve just begun conversations with a couple of great, progressive organisations who are keen, even with limited funds, to find a way to pay our young people for their contribution. Our co-creators are looking to help SMEs and bigger businesses to develop some of their policies such as environmental and sustainability, equal opportunities, social media—or even develop a work experience package to support other young people who want to learn from the organisation. Whatever they do, we want to ensure that their work will add huge, long-lasting value to the organisation.
For Spark+Mettle, Star Track is our flagship programme and we’re proud of the deep-dive approach it takes to support a small number of young people. But we have accumulated some great knowledge and insight over the last few months, and we are keen to share this with a much greater swathe of young people (and grown-ups too!) who could benefit from it. We’re launching a pilot project called The Dreamers Supply Company, with support from the RSA and the Design Museum. It’s a collaborative project that will allow up to 40 young people to co-create, produce and sell ‘dream-realising’ products through the Design Museum Shop. It’s a whimsical and fun project, but they’ll come away with tons of new skills, including creative, collaborative and entrepreneurial techniques. And it’s revenue generating, so that we can be in part self-sustaining, as well as being able to support financially the emerging talents of the young people involved in the project too.
In June we will also be piloting a week-long series of utterly non-exclusive talks, seminars and workshops, pitched at both professional adults and young people. Called Forge (On), the aim is to inquire collectively into what it takes to find a good job and to lead a flourishing life. Again, the hope is that this will become another steady revenue stream to support our charitable programmes. Tickets of course, will be on a sliding scale and we’ll make sure that they’re affordable to all.
Taking an extremely long view, what are the ultimate goals of Spark + Mettle? What is the end game? What do you need to get there?
Every day I feel frustrated by how silo-ed the UK can be. We’re all off in different corners, we’re all beavering away or hanging out in our own little pockets and we rarely mingle with others who are in different spaces to us. So if Spark+Mettle can do anything to bring together diverse people to learn about wonderful ideas and to create wonderful things, then we’ll be happy.
The end game is to encourage, enable and empower people from all walks of life to fulfill their potential. As I said earlier, we can’t magic jobs up out of nowhere. And we’re certainly not here to turn the next generation into a group of acquiescent, disengaged worker bees. So while people are looking for work, then we want to provide them with ways of developing their skills, and enjoying themselves, and feeling engaged and in charge of their own lives.
We’d love to scale Spark+Mettle, perhaps using a franchise model, so that it can be replicated across the UK. And beyond!
How can Social Innovation Europe best support your work?
We’re constantly on the lookout for professionals who love what they do who have five minutes to support a young person. Whether that’s looking over their CV, giving advice about first steps into an industry, or passing on their information to another contact: it’s these tiny bits of support that are instrumental to the success of our work. If anyone within the Social Innovation Europe network would be willing to offer a few minutes of their time, we’d be thrilled.
Additionally we’re also looking for a small number of progressive organisations who’d be willing to fund a two week work placement for one of our young people. And of course, we’re still a small potato and we’re constantly hunting down new sources for funding or donations too.