Antiracism through Opportunity

How School 21 approaches work experience through an antiracist lens

Cassie Cramer Programme Manager for Real World Learning at School 21

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School 21 is a place that has always strived to provide opportunities for our diverse young people to succeed in the 21st century. Recently, it has been made clear that success by our definition requires taking actions to identify and act against racial inequality both inside and outside the classroom. In 2020, School 21 has made a concerted effort to promote equity, inclusion and diversity within our community. Through various initiatives, such as diversifying our curriculum, creating more inclusive recruitment processes, and the formation of an antiracism working group, we are doing what we can to create a thoroughly antiracist organisation. There are, however, some things School 21 has done for some time that in unexpected ways contribute to our newly articulated antiracist agenda. One of these things is the development and implementation of the Real World Learning Programme.

What is Real World Learning?

The Real World Learning Programme was started in 2015 as a reimagining of work experience. It provides both students and their host workplace with something that is more meaningful and authentic than traditional work experience. At School 21 all Year 10 and Year 12 students take part in 1-2 projects with a partner organisation for 12-17 weeks. Students spend one afternoon each week out of the classroom and in the real world, where they work in teams to solve problems for their host organization. Students take the skills they have developed through project-based learning in the classroom, and apply them to real life projects in the working world. Students come away with a tangible product, a variety of transferable skills, and a totally novel experience which can significantly impact their futures. Real World Learning at School 21 brings students and the professional world together in a meaningful way and raises aspirations of students, while widening the perspectives of employers.

An opportunity to build a network

Some students work with carpenters to make new chairs for our school. Others, work with international financial institutions. From local primary schools to world renowned publishing houses, we work hard to provide students access to opportunities that are too often reserved for those with connections and privilege. The phrase, ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ has continually been proven true on small scales and large. Work experience, something that for many is relatively inconsequential, has the potential to create the opportunity for students to start a professional network. This provides marginalised young people the chance at the kind of network their more privileged peers may have through parents, private institutions or their school’s alumni. By simply giving students the chance to show their best selves, through an elongated and scaffolded work experience programme, we are in a very small way working to create a more equitable society.

Exposure goes both ways

The Real World Learning Programme strives to get our students out of the bubbles they are so accustomed to. It exposes them to careers, locations and individuals that they may never come across in their day to day lives. It is not, however, only the students whose boundaries are pushed. The bubbles that many corporations and organisations function in looks very different from our students bubbles, but they are bubbles nonetheless. By putting our students in white dominated spaces – like in the sky scrapers of Canary Wharf – you are not only raising their aspirations, but you are demonstrating what young, diverse people of colour from East London are capable of. The exposure that the programme offers, especially as it is over a significant period of time, works to confront implicit bias and racist stereotypes. It puts young ethnically diverse people in boardrooms and demands their thoughts are considered.

Many projects that our students have worked on explicitly seek to rectify racism in the workplace. We’ve had students working at the Ministry of Justice create a training video which sought to help employees identify and avoid implicit bias based on race and gender. Students have worked with the Metropolitan Police to create campaigns which aimed to ease tensions between young East Londoners and police officers who work in the area. HSBC has had our students reimagine their hiring processes, so that they are more attractive employers to a diverse pool of candidates. It is not only students who work on projects about diversity and inclusion in the workplace who contribute through Real World Learning to School 21’s antiracist agenda. Every student who completes the programme and can therefore see their future selves in positions of influence is a tiny rebellion against the white hegemonic structures that underlie so many industries.

Representation matters

Committing a total of 8.5 entire school days to work experience is not the only way to create a careers programme that is actively anti racist. It starts with not limiting your students, and reflecting on your assumption of their capabilities. I’ve seen some of our most vulnerable students who struggle in a classroom environment do their work when they put on a suit and play the role of consultant. If they never get the chance to be in these scenarios, how will they know they deserve to be? Representation is also something that is so important in career education. If students don’t have the time to form relationships with professionals, it is vital that they are exposed to professionals that they can relate to. If every solicitor or CEO you meet is white, it is hard not to jump to conclusions about the prerequisites for these sorts of careers. Sometimes interactions with professionals must be fleeting, but for them to be impactful there has to be some common ground and it is always worth the effort to find someone who can relate to students.

Looking at the big picture

The Real World Learning Programme is by no means perfect. Sometimes students get fired, employers end up frustrated and projects don’t get completed. The quality of projects are not always up to our standards, and students sometimes misbehave. These things seem insignificant though, if you think of the bigger picture. We unfortunately live in a society that is segregated. Race, class, wealth and other factors limit the movement of individuals in their professional lives. Work experience can be seen as an exchange of sorts, exposing students to foreign situations, and exposing employers to the talent, spark and ingenuity that is being nurtured in a place like a state school in Stratford, East London. We believe our students are capable of making real and lasting contributions to the companies they work with, and while they don’t always complete their brief, or win their pitch, they do always leave a mark on those they interact with.

We can, and should, think about work experience as an opportunity for students to experience the real world and gain valuable skills. This does not, however, have to be the sole purpose of it. By providing students with opportunities for their voices to be heard, and their opinions valued, the Real World Learning Programme is creating space for marginalised individuals to make their mark on institutions that have ignored them for too long. It allows students to see themselves as equals in a room of professionals who often have had a very different lived experience. Giving these opportunities to students, and supporting them to use their agency is an antiracist practice that more schools should be empowered to provide. I’d urge any enrichment manager or careers leader in a school to think about what opportunities the most privileged students have access to, and how this allows them to develop skills for the real world. It is absolutely possible that all students receive opportunities to develop those same skills while simultaneously raising aspirations and disproving racist assumptions. Work experience can be a vessel through which we don’t just acknowledge racial inequality, but actively empower our students to dismantle it from the inside.

Prepare students for the world, and the world for our students

Work experience is many things. It can be a taste of independence, a rude awakening, a rite of passage or a formative experience. At School 21, we also see it as a chance to promote equity and spark change that reaches far beyond our school walls. Through Real World Learning students can push their own agendas, and let organisations big and small know what matters to them. They can pave the way for others from similar backgrounds. They can show professionals that young people of colour can disrupt the status quo and contribute just as much as those who society privileges over them. They can see themselves as someone important, capable and respectable in a world that paints them as the opposite. If we see work experience as a chance to prepare our students for the working world, but also prepare the world for our students, we can do our part as educators to dismantle the systemic racism that is still rampant in workplaces and in society.

In collaboration with @DiverseEd2020, this blog series, is a way to showcase a range of voices, giving space to share examples of practice, personal reflections, and calls to action #DiverseEd

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