The importance of providing meaningful opportunities

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Peter Gaskell describes how a college news agency has inspired and motivated students with real world employment opportunities.

Last year the Pathways department in Loreto College set up a digital news agency and ‘employed’ 18 young people to cover breaking stories from our college. As teachers we wanted them to experience working in the media sector.

What started out as a nice idea turned into a passion project for these learners. After the first lessons we started getting emails from them over the weekend, with articles, designs and ideas for the agency.

Many SEND young people are marginalised by society because of their disabilities and they don’t always have high aspirations. They often find it harder to get a job than mainstream students. Data from the Office for National Statistics backs this up. The UK employment rate for people with disabilities is 52.3% – significantly lower than the employment rate for people without disabilities, which is 81.1%.

We wanted to tackle these issues but also open students’ eyes to the exciting and varied opportunities offered by digital careers. This led our department to work with Digital Advantage, a charity that delivers innovative work experiences to young people of all ages and abilities.

They explained that a city like Manchester, which has a burgeoning digital sector, is struggling to recruit the right people. We discussed the fact that many of our students – most of whom have autism and other support needs – are often very focused, logical thinkers who have good attention to detail and strong problem-solving abilities.

These are exactly the skills that are in high demand within the digital sector, yet not enough talented teenagers with special educational needs and disabilities are getting digital jobs.

The team at Digital Advantage suggested that we replicate a real-life digital business environment at the college. The students were given the chance to build the brand from the ground up and named it LEVEL.

Students began writing news and feature stories, they drafted video scripts, took photos and made videos about Loreto, their friends and issues close to their heart.

Professionals from local digital companies led workshops, sharing their own experiences of breaking into the creative and digital industries – giving first-hand tips and inspiration. The students designed a brand to give their agency an identity and they developed a website to host the content they were creating.

Students involved in the Digital Advantage project

We were concerned about the varying abilities of the young people and the fact that some weren’t IT whizz kids, whilst others already had strong computer skills. But over time we realised their technical ability didn’t matter and they were quick learners. Our group of 18 teenagers wasn’t huge and each learner naturally found their own role in the agency – they sought out whatever they were interested in and there was a job for everyone.

What really struck us was the teamwork. The brand manager, who designed the logo, was speaking to the website designer and the news reporter was plugged into the latest events in the college and they were all communicating closely with the photographer. With the support of Rubbi Bhogal-Wood, the Digital Advantage industry trainer, everything was co-ordinated by a student who took the role of agency manager. They knew what each person was doing and what their deadlines were so they could keep track and upload the finished content to the website.

Each student was very focused on their work, but they listened to each other and connected the dots themselves. It was great to see them unify around a common purpose as a digital agency.

Despite lockdown restrictions and a lot of remote learning, a wealth of digital content was created, including a short film, articles, podcast interviews and surveys about life post-Covid. You can see it all here: https://sites.google.com/view/loretolevel

Crucially, the confidence and independence of the students grew and grew. My teaching role lessened over time as they owned their roles and I had to do less orchestrating. Lots of the students engaged so well that they’d often work on ideas at home – and I found they’d do a lot of reading independently around subjects in their own time too, widening theirown knowledge.

One of our main aims at Loreto’s Pathways department is supporting young people to develop their independence and navigate the next step in their learning journey. For many, that involves going onto our Supported Internship, but for others they are more suited to working in a digital sector. It’s not an easy world out there for young people fresh from sixth form college – particularly if you have special education needs and disabilities.

Thankfully, digital and IT work opportunities haven’t waned during the pandemic. If anything, the demand for digital talent is now greater. Some of our students are very technically gifted. Others have huge imaginative potential and the ability to create, visually through graphic design or photography. Many of the students also realised just how strong their communication skills were, whether that’s writing news pieces, interviewing people for a podcast or motivating and organising the whole team.

The 18 individuals who set up LEVEL have now begun their next challenge. Some have started Supported Internships at Loreto or elsewhere. One young man is independently developing websites and YouTube channels.

We now have a new cohort of students who are learning from the achievements of last year’s group. I firmly believe that being part of LEVEL will reveal their hidden talents too, helping them gain new perspectives and, importantly, unlocking a wealth of new career opportunities.

Peter Gaskell
Author: Peter Gaskell

Peter Gaskell
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Peter Gaskell is a senior Educational Support Assistant and the lead teacher of Digital Advantage at Loreto Sixth Form College in Manchester.
W: digitaladvantage.org.uk
T: @digivantage
F: @loretocollege

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