28 March 2013

The mentoring challenge

As a photography student I loved the lectures and hours spent in the studio, making mistakes and getting lost in my work. But one of the most important parts of my development was listening to the professional and amateur photographers who came to show us their work. Some were seasoned pros, others had graduated more recently – but they all helped broaden our horizons. Our lecturers promised them nothing more than a bottle of wine and a captive audience, but they inspired us. Some subsequently became friends, and further helped me to find my feet.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I moved back to London, began to build my client base, and discovered that I’d learnt more in six months as a working photographer than I had in two years of photography school. That – of course – is pretty similar to most industries!

But I also realised that in the era of expensive higher education, I could help the sixth formers studying photography in the schools around where I lived in south London, and potentially steer them towards or away from photography at university. I’d benefitted from other people putting their time in to me, and mentoring was a debt I needed to repay. I rang all the secondary schools in the two boroughs my home was straddled between, and offered to talk to their students, show them some of my work and equipment, and explain how photography had transformed my life.

What surprised me was that of the dozens of schools I contacted, only two were interested. One had a strong focus on the creative arts – with a fantastic head of department, who regularly took her students to see exhibitions in town, and practically bit my arm off when I explained why I wanted to get involved. The other was a new 6th Form college with three quarters of the children receiving free school meals, and an inspiring head of sixth form who wanted all her students to have an adult mentor who could give them an insight into the professional world, contact that she was adamant would help them maximise their potential and broaden their horizons.

As a careers and skills mentor I’ve been able to help my students learn the rules of the game, recognise the value of volunteering in developing CVs, etc. – the things that are subconsciously drilled into students with parents working in the professions. And last week I got an email from one of my sixth-formers who’d been offered a part-time job after I prodded her into a round of door-knocking in the field she wants to study when she finishes her A-levels.

Likewise, I hope I’ve opened new horizons for my photography students, as well as given them a glimpse of the professional world on the other side of the expensive creative colleges. And I’ve helped the school’s art department buy equipment that enhances their teaching and persuaded my suppliers to sell gear at cost so that the children are learning with the same tools that they will use if they go and assist commercial photographers. Their excitement when I showed them how to shoot magazine cover portraits in their classroom was a priceless experience.

Of course, it isn’t exactly news to anyone that mentoring is hugely helpful – as I found out when I was a student photographer. The Department for Education’s latest guidance describes how ‘mentoring programmes and mentoring relationships have greater potential than others to maximise impact’, but frustratingly only acknowledges learning mentors (i.e. helping with day-to-day school work) and peer mentors (helping with bullying, moving to new schools, etc.). Nothing on helping children to see the bigger picture of what life might be able to offer them when they finish school, or about their university choices (an area where the state really could do with some help).

I remember a confident young girl telling me at the start of her A-levels that she wanted to do law at one of the UK’s top five universities. She’d chosen to study A-levels in law, general studies, media studies and psychology, and was nonplussed when I told her she would seriously struggle to get a place at the likes of Cambridge or UCL with her subject choices. Her teachers had told her she simply needed lots of A* grades, and the notion that some subjects are seen as ‘soft’ was unwelcome news.

Mentoring can play a big part in breaking down barriers in education and the early years of employment. Many people mentor at schools, but we don’t have a national culture of putting something back into the education system – particularly from white collar workers. How do we change this?

Some local authorities recognise the benefits of mentoring, yet fail to understand that it isn’t a command process – an appeal from a local education authority or council don’t really inspire people in the same way that being directly involved with a school does. I’m not particularly interested in jumping through whatever hoops Lambeth council might have in store for me; conversely I feel a strong sense of loyalty towards the two schools who were initially interested in how I could help their students. They took me purely on my enthusiasm and work experience (and current CRB form), but without spirit sapping paperwork that would deter most people.

There are difficulties: it is easy to match mentors with students in London, while there will be parts of the country where the need is greatest, but where there is a relative lack of people who are able to help. The good news is that mentoring doesn’t require significant money or time from schools – it just needs political leadership in encouraging people to knock on the door of their local school, and ensuring teachers are receptive to the idea of outsiders helping make education truly transformational.

First published by Platform 10 on March 28th, 2013

25 March 2013

Mr. Brown goes off to town on the 08.21*

One of the reasons I was motivated to go out canvassing in the snow last weekend – not something I thought I’d be writing in late March – is the manner in which the Government has got stuck into overhauling the rail network. There’s been a lot of noise about the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Axe, which fell hardest under the Wilson Labour government. But what many of those nostalgic about the steam era haven’t realised is the extent of the work taking place on the railways today.

Of course, there are the high profile schemes – Crossrail and HS2 – both of which will address badly needed capacity shortages, as anyone travelling into Euston or on the Central Line during the rush hour will tell you. But there are other smaller projects that will bring dramatic improvements to local services, such as Manchester’s Ordsall Chord (which the Economist wrote up glowingly last week).

Manchester's Ordsall Chord project (Network Rail)
At the bottom end of the glamour spectrum, hundreds of platforms all around the country are being extended so that longer trains can be run – even the sleepy branch line down to my Dad’s place in the High Weald is having money spent on it. Stations are being reopened, while signalling is being modernised. And not a moment too soon: passenger use of the railways has doubled in the last two decades and continues to grow, despite the economic downturn.

More fundamentally, we’ve taken action to bring the railways into the 21st century. Despite howls of protest from Labour, the Department for Transport has pressed on with reducing the number of ticket offices, which add to the already high overheads of running trains. Besides, when did you last actually buy a ticket over the counter? Most people purchase their tickets online or at ticket machines. Labour has consistently argued the union’s line that this is a precursor to closing railway lines, when the exact opposite is true – by bringing down operating costs we are putting our railways on a sounder footing and ensuring their long term viability.

Around the country, Conservative councils and MPs are lobbying central government for better railway services, and earlier this month Brighton’s Conservative MPs and councillors came out strongly for the innovative Brighton Mainline 2 scheme that will drive economic growth and transform travel across Sussex and Kent.

The next general election will see commuters look at their wallets and purses and ask what we’ve done for them. We’ve got a great story to tell motorists on freezing fuel duty, but railway season ticket costs have increased, albeit at a lower rate than was planned by Labour. Our action to keep these down is a good thing, given that the average commuter spends a fifth of their pre-tax salary on train travel.

So it is essential that we make sure the hard pressed commuter knows about our track record: we are an unashamedly pro-railways government that has balanced protecting people’s pockets with investing in the service they rely on every day.

Or in other words, we need to talk less about the exciting headline projects, and concentrate on telling the people who pour through London Bridge each weekday about the hundreds of small improvements we’re getting done to make sure they can get a seat on a train that’ll run on time.

* Bonus points if you realise that this is a line from the Dad's Army theme tune, rather than an oblique reference to G. Brown, formerly of 10 Downing Street.

First published by Egremont on March 25th, 2013

12 March 2013

Why £9,000-per-year university tuition fees aren't such a bad thing (and Tony Blair agrees with me)

Children in their last year of school are gearing up for what one contemporary Scottish philosopher calls ‘squeaky bum time’. A-level exams in the summer suddenly don’t seem so far away, and shortly the contents of acceptance and rejection letters from institutions will start being broadcast in Facebook status updates up and down the country.

The deadline for art and design schools is later this month, and last week I had coffee with a student I mentor to look at her portfolio and university application. Her work showed plenty of promise, but as we talked I realised that while she was desperate to do a photography degree, she wasn’t particularly interested in using it as the foundation for a career taking pictures – she just liked the idea of studying photography, and would do something different after her graduation.

She’s by no means alone. We have a large number of students in creative tertiary education, many of whom realise during their studies that enjoying something at A-level (often taken as an alternative to boring ‘academic’ subjects) isn’t enough to sustain them through the long hours of working in the studio at their university. Others quickly find out that that their work simply doesn’t cut the mustard when they enter the saturated graduate marketplace. And – being completely blunt – the tertiary sector’s vast oversupply of creative graduates unable to work in areas where their degree have prepared them for is nothing short of scandalous.

To someone with a rose-tinted view of the whole university experience this probably sounds harsh. University is about growing up, finding one’s feet in the world, etc. Yet the ease in justifying a degree in the creative arts is symptomatic of the distance we have yet to travel in shifting society’s attitudes towards tertiary education.

The wretched ‘50 per cent of school leavers going to university’ aspiration was a misplaced and profoundly damaging New Labour ploy to seduce parents. It was also politically very smart: ‘thanks to the government my child is the first in our family to have a university education’. The policy flooded the workforce with graduates, and sent a clear signal to students that choosing not to do degrees made them second best.

At the drop of a hat sixth formers saw areas like photography that really should only be one or two years in duration as the gateway to the newly hallowed university education – albeit in a technical subject that doesn’t give them the transferrable skills and intellectual rigour that employers associate with degrees in subjects like history or geography. Private schools also need to take some of the blame: it’d be a rare headmaster who tells parents that their child isn’t university material having taken £150,000 in fees over the past five years. Better a degree in photography, music journalism, etc, than no degree at all, or so their logic flows.

The danger is that students are supposedly now paying for the bulk of their education. Fundamentally this is a good thing: America’s dominance of the top 100 universities is plainly and inescapably due to their system of fees – not my analysis, but that of Tony Blair in his autobiography, who (rightly) points out that when it comes to recruiting academic staff “those who paid top dollar got the best”.

Tuition fees also address the small matter of successive governments failing to fund universities properly. And as a Head of Sixth Form friend of mine pointed out, “if you’re not intelligent enough to realise that £9,000 a year to go to a top Russell Group university is a bargain, then you really shouldn’t be applying to those places in the first place”.

The scrum of blue chip firms recruiting on Britain’s top campuses hammers home the value of forking out for the best education the UK can offer, and the new fee levels will help ensure that graduates from UCL, Cambridge, etc, can expect their qualifications to stack up globally (with salaries to match) and help ensure our universities continue to churn out world leading research.

Incidentally, as someone who mentors students in two of South London’s most deprived schools, I was really pleased to hear from the teachers there that the new fees structure and bursary support is more favourable for those from less affluent backgrounds than the previous government’s scheme – which is exactly as it should be. Nevertheless I remain to be convinced that many of the wide-eyed UCAS applicants for photography and music journalism degrees will actually find that their three years of undergraduate study has transformed their employment prospects.

More importantly, will their studies enable them to repay much of the £18-27k in tuition fees that they’ve taken on, full of enthusiasm for whatever creative A-level subject they dabbled in at school? Or will they find they’ve been sold a pup by institutions who are desperate to prop up their student rolls with courses of dubious value? It’s interesting to hear Pam Tatlow of the Million+ think-tank (representing many former polytechnics) describe this year’s small increase in university applications as a “recovery”, whereas the market behaviour from this year’s students seems to indicate that for some of the institutions Million+ represents the decrease in rolls of 50-60% could well be terminal. And while this plays out the Treasury’s exposure to the student debt it underwrites grows and grows – after all, the government pays for your education until you’re actually in a position to reimburse it.

So where does this leave my enthusiastic photography student? Higher student fees are here to stay – Mr Blair himself saying that “once introduced as a concept, there [is] no looking back”.

For some disciplines this must surely spell trouble for the idea of three year degrees. The higher end providers of vocational courses will flourish, but institutions without the cachet of the Slade and LCC may well have to rethink how they deliver education to increasingly savvy consumers. Photography, journalism, graphic design, etc. are hardly lucrative careers, so the American concept of shorter ‘associate’ degrees for some vocational and creative subjects seems very sensible: students avoid the £10-15k involved with a third year of study, and employers provide the final polish in the initial stages of paid employment.

My student wants to experience tertiary study, so understandably a single year course doesn’t appeal. I did a two-year photography diploma in New Zealand, and by the end of it I was desperate to finish and get stuck into winning clients and getting proper commissions, as well as avoid an expensive third year – the money saved being more than enough to buy a decent studio setup.

Why is it then that our creative universities stubbornly persist with courses that seem aimed at lining their own pockets and propping up a ill-conceived system? Sure, politicians and society at large need to take some responsibility for fostering the often dubious allure of ‘going to uni’, but there’s a horrible irony in institutions aimed at nurturing creativity being so painfully regimented and unoriginal in what they offer today’s young talent – and cheerfully milking them dry at the same time.

First published by Egremont on March 8th, 2013