Our Head is Sixth Form, talks about the value of career mentoring

Talk Education has recently published Mr Coppell's article on the value of career mentoring initiatives and the positive impact of businesses and schools working closely together to support sixth formers as they make all-important decisions about their life beyond school.

What lessons have you learnt in your career that school didn’t teach you?

Schools, and sixth forms in particular, know they have to focus better and harder on getting their young people ready for professional happiness and success. Competitive academic outcomes are our stock-in-trade, yet at the same time 18+ and 21+ recruiters are telling us they need much, much more. In its ‘Skills for an Inclusive Economy’ report in 2021, the CBI revealed that attitudes and aptitude for work was the top-rated factor for organisations recruiting graduates: in 82 per cent of cases it was in their top three. The corresponding figure for degree results was just 23 per cent, well behind relevant work experience at 58 per cent. The situation was similar for 18+ recruiters, where soft skills and behaviours were the most important strength (69 per cent); academic results and qualifications came in third (40 per cent).

Chigwell is pioneering a careers mentoring group for its sixth-form students. We want to put our young people in front of mentors with a track record of proven professional success and let them be influenced and inspired by them. The programme is called Stardust and has developed out of an idea by local Chigwell businessman Phillip Leigh. Students who volunteer to take part attend a series of short lectures and Q&A sessions with speakers from a range of fields and backgrounds. We benefit, as of course many independent schools do, from a school community awash with enthusiastic and accomplished former students and parents who are keen to support a programme like this because they appreciate its value, and we are hugely grateful to them. Their brief is simple: to answer the question at the top of this article honestly, informally and directly. Putting our students in a room with successful, leading professionals in numbers small enough to generate meaningful discussion is very powerful. Themes recur and develop: integrity; bravery; emotional strength.

At the end of the series, students are encouraged to approach Phillip formally to inquire about work experience with him or one of the speakers, and as part of this, they are asked to reference what they have learnt and how they want to develop, taking the next step in the mentoring process. For all of them, it is the first time they have written a formal letter and CV, and our Head of Careers gives them support with this very important skill. It is a task with a direct, real-world application: these letters will arrive in a potential employer’s inbox and they need to be right.

The effect on individual students is striking. Stardust has directly and demonstrably influenced degree choice and career direction, and numbers taking part have steadily grown. Phillip and I are not sure where we will take it to next, but are keen to grow the concept. We hope it can stand as an example of what can happen when businesses and schools work together.