Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why we need a National Talent Programme

The other week I watched a depressing programme about the riots of 2011.  Told from the 'rioters' perspective, it opened up the 'mental map' of the inner city poor very effectively.   In a diamond-shaped society, these people sit in the point at the bottom.    And if you happen to be born into this part of the diamond, you will probably have experienced shit parenting, a shit school and, if you ever get one, a shit job.  If you have kids, their lives will probably wind up the same.

So far so well-known already.  What we don't know is how we deal with this as a society.   Secretly, most politicians see this problem as un-solvable - the by-product of wider forces beyond anyone's control.  All the focus goes on how this underclass group is prevented from impinging too much on the lives of everyone else.

I too have no answers to the immediate problem.  We have a big, long term challenge here that won't go away easily.   What I do believe, however, is that we have to create escape-routes for people.   Fifty years ago, when British society resembled not a diamond but a pyramid, the escape route from a pre-determined life at the bottom was Grammer school.  Or it's religious equivalent.   Millions of bright kids from very working class backgrounds found a way to something else this way.  We all know someone whose life-path was altered this way   Of course, the system for those left behind wasn't good enough, but what we did achieve, in a way we haven't managed since, is an effective way to help people move to other places in our society.

So do we open lots of new Grammers?   No, we shouldn't.  The shape of British society today means that the life-chances of everyone bar those at the bottom of the diamond are reasonably well-served.  Social mobility is possible, as long as you're not at the very bottom.   Therefore what we need instead is a system of selecting people with talent - academic, creative, technical, entrepreneurial - from the rougher end of our society.

As we know, one size will not fit all.   Some kids should simply get free passes to public schools - like they used to before that scheme was abolished.   Others should be placed in elite state schools near where they live and given 1-1 coaching based on getting them to university.    Creative types should be fast-tracked to St Martin's or whichever is the top place for their particular talent.   Our top firms should be be on board, offering elite apprenticeships for the very best.  We don't need lots of new institutions, just a good system for identifying and tracking talented youngsters who start on the wrong side of the tracks.

A key part of this is mentoring.   A friend of mine has mentored a young boy from a rough part of London for several years and he is now about to go to study medicine.  This is a boy from a single parent family who lives in an area riven by gang culture.   This relationship with a high-performing mentor who has put in the time, over many years, has been key to this lad's eventual flowering. A national programme that couples this with easy-access to the elite institutions and firms in this country will, I believe be an important step forward.   Just the fact that it is there, that people know about it and know that, if they are any good and work hard, they can find a way out, will be a huge fillip to people who currently know, deep-down, there isn't really a way out.

Is this a real solution, given the numbers involved?   A 'National Talent Programme' could seek to target tens of thousands of our most talented kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.   Look what happens on programmes like X-factor when you put an opportunity there, however fragile.   People flock to it.   It fuels hope and allows the most capable to be seen.   I am not saying you need Simon Cowell or a studio full of neon lights, but we do need something for those who, otherwise, will not be seen and their talents never contribute to our society.

1 comment:

Fitzroy Andrew said...

Agree with every word. I'd like to set up exactly this sort of mentoring programme in Tottenham, where I've recently taken on the role of running the local CVS. Would really like to talk more if at all possible - can be reached via my LinkedIn page or on Twitter at @FitzHavco