Educational inequality and the middle class rule book

2015 Fellow Karisma Desai on joining Future Frontiers

I started Year Here as a Youth Worker at a YMCA service in South West London. I supported the staff to organise music and arts workshops, sports sessions and wellbeing activities for young people in the neighbourhood, offering a warm room and people to listen. The young people I was working with mainly came from poorly-performing schools in the local area.

I’d been interested in educational inequality for a while but at the youth club I was struck by the reality of it. Its effects spread far beyond grades. The best schools offer their pupils the confidence to believe that any future is possible for them; the networks to improve their access to careers that interest them; and the sage advice they need to realise their ambitions. All this has an enormous effect on social mobility.

Meanwhile another Fellow, Hannah German, was placed in a school in South London where 70% of pupils received Free School Meals and she was noticing a similar pattern. Lots of pupils simply hadn’t been introduced the middle class rule book that might have given a shot at forging successful careers. They hadn’t been given the simple advice that could help unlock their aspirations. One pupil, Ana, wanted to study economics at university, but couldn’t apply as she needed a Maths A-level. She hadn’t known this, and had chosen Economics instead. She was stuck.

The UK has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world – second only to the USA. 45% of pupils receiving Free School Meals say that they don’t know anyone with a career they would like to do themselves, and only 56% of pupils from state schools believe that those who go to their school will be successful in the world of work (compared to 90% of pupils from private schools). Good careers advice can improve pupils’ motivation, attainment and attendance at school, but the CBI has reported that 93% of pupils don’t receive the careers advice they need. The dearth of effective careers guidance is particularly damaging for pupils from low-income families, many of whom may lack the social capital their wealthier peers take for granted.

During the incubator (the last phase of the programme), we took our niggling worries and bigger frustrations and whipped them into shape. Hannah and I worked on a business idea, Social Capitalism, to connect underperforming pupils with young professionals, who could impart advice and support to and inform them about their career choices. We nursed our idea, tested different permutations and pitched to industry experts. We developed financial models and business plans and covered the walls in post-its.

Social Capitalism fell through in the end. The market for education-based social enterprises is crowded, and the things that we thought differentiated our idea turned out to be weaknesses. But we tried. We dared to fail, learnt from our mistakes, found 1,000 ways that didn’t work.

While we were developing the idea, we got in touch with dozens of initiatives in our field. One of the organisations I stumbled across was called Future Frontiers. It seemed to be a scalable version of the idea we had been developing ourselves. Future Frontiers provides one-to-one career coaching for disadvantaged pupils, with a specific focus on improving their motivation and grades at school. The model is easy to grow, using university volunteers to deliver short, flexible programmes.

I’m now Head of Programmes at Future Frontiers. We’ve gone full throttle into scaling up and reaching areas where we’re most needed. It’s an exciting moment and I have a real say in how we grow. Day to day my role varies – this week I’m pitching for funding to huge players in the field, delivering the programme to stroppy teenagers, and training 50 volunteers.

We’re always looking for volunteers so if, like me, you believe that no child’s future should be limited by the amount their parents earn – and have an hour a week to spare, visit us at futurefrontiers.org.uk.