Realising aspirations over a weekend

Take fortyish enthusiastic people (including my wife); mix with a fun, energetic innovation process and add a sprinkling of coffee and beers…

And breathe! Most of my Monday (that’s Monday 28th April 2014) was spent mentally recovering from the brilliant, hectic, creative and positive Teach First Innovation weekend at the Watershed in Bristol. Thanks once again to the Teach First Innovation team who put it on!

The aim of the weekend was to develop ideas that help young people realise their aspirations, especially for those from low-income areas. This is something close to my heart. Some of you might know that I’m working on an idea for getting children more engaged with the things in life that they are passionate about (much more on my own idea at a later date, watch this space!).

The aim of this post is more to describe my personal journey through this weekend rather than to take you through the details of the process and the individual activities. I’m sure that Lucy or someone on the Teach First Innovation team can help you with the latter if you want to know more (and you should find out more as it was both beautifully constructed and very engaging).


Friday night was about better understanding the problem. We were presented with case studies of children thinking about their life decisions and raft of (beautifully hand-drawn) evidence on what was blocking aspirations. One key source of information presented was the work carried out by McKinsey on going from Education to Employment, which is worth checking out.

Those of you that know me well will know that I obviously could not take the assumptions of what aspirations are as a given. A lot of my time that first night was thus taken up discussing the nature of aspirations and what makes an aspiration “valid”.

It’s an interesting question – why do we generally believe that working and living off government payments is not a valid aspiration? Why is dealing cocaine not a valid aspiration? Is being a stay-at-home parent a valid aspiration? Why do we typically focus on high-flying economic success over happiness? Who am I to tell you that your aspiration is not a valid one?

After getting tied up in a meandering discussion with many people covering a spicy mix of philosophy, politics, economics, sociology etc (of which I’ll spare you the details), the hypothesis that I formed after listening to a mix of voices was that there were three factors which were the roots of what most people would call a valid aspiration:

  1. An aspiration should be based on something that an individual believes in
  2. An aspiration should not directly lead to negative impacts for others
  3. An aspiration needs to be, at a minimum, not be a financial burden on society

I have no idea if this is at all valid, but I think it is at least an interesting basis for starting a discussion around the nature of what we do and why we do it. I’m really interested in talking more about this with people – please get in touch if you feel the same!

Despite my love of philosophising, we swiftly had to move on to getting to the practical heart of the problem. To me, the problem seemed to be divided into two parts:

  1. What do I want to do with my life? Children often do not know what their aspirations are and, even worse, what the broad scope of their achievable aspirations could be (i.e. they have no visibility over the range of things that they could potentially do with their lives)
  2. What’s the next steps towards getting there? Even when they do have some idea of what they want to do, they do not know the path to reach their goals or do not have the skills to be able to do so, and they also have limited guidance or support to help them on their way

I decided that I wanted look at how we can develop ideas that solve the problem of a lack of role models and mentors. Why this? It was because I believe that having people in our lives that act as role models or mentors can help us tackle both parts of the problem above: they provide the spark for aspirations but also the guidance and support on how to reach them. If we could think of something that worked well in this space, the impact could be both deep and broad.

I decided not to work on my own idea over this weekend for two main reasons:

  • My idea is focused on the “intrinsic” side of things – providing children with the tools and mindsets to pursue their ideas further. Role models, I believe, are the other side of this coin – part of the “extrinsic” support network that is critical to further the personal growth. I thought this weekend would be a useful window of time to engage with parts of the problem that my idea is not being designed to tackle, and to see how it all fits together.
  • I wanted to engage fully with the process that the Teach First team had put in place. My idea has been developing on and off for a few months now and by working on this idea over this weekend, I believe I would not have made the most of various activities, which were about generating and refining ideas.

A great team formed around the problem of role models, and we started discussing the issues. And you know what that meant – a lot of deep conversation (I live for this stuff!). What do role models really mean? Are the role models that young people have today the right role models?

An evening in the pub ended the day, with a relatively early bedtime looking forward to a long Saturday ahead!


Back in the room and ideas started to flow. After we were put in the mood, we were asked to think of as many ideas as possible to solve the issue we had chosen to tackle without thinking about why the ideas might not work. The rest of my team had some great ideas, and we also realised the problem was a broad one, and there were many things to solve.

One of the things we did was to divide up the world of role models / mentors into three groups, as per the diagram and table below

MOAUM TFInnovation Pic 1


Role model / mentor group Description Key benefit that this group potentially has Problems to address with this group
Immediate influences
  • People who have regular contact with a child, and that the child admires and / or respects the opinion of
  • Examples include parents, relatives, teachers, sports coaches etc.
  • High degree of influence and regular contact
  • Are there any good role models in this group for that child?
  • Do they have the skills to properly support the child?
Local role models
  • People whose achievements a child admires and can see a clear connection with (e.g. from the same area / school, some other more distant relationship)
  • Examples could include local artists / musicians, professionals etc.
  • Child can clearly see a path for himself / herself in this person


  • Is there enough understanding of success for a child to pick local role models?
  • Can a child contact / connect with this person easily to be able to learn more?
High profile role models
  • People who are usually famous for their achievements, typically nationally or internationally
  • Examples could be authors, musicians, sports stars, politicians etc that are regularly featured in the media
  • Provide aspiration at the highest level 
  • Can we broaden the exposure to high profile success beyond the usual media-saturated individuals?
  • Can the success be demystified to allow the child to see the path they took?

This is a first cut and probably needs refinement, but we felt it created a framework that allowed us to really identify tangible problems that we could create solutions for.

Another team (Eunice, Hassan and John) decided to focus on an idea that gamified the experiences of famous role models to make their life stories and experiences much more digestible for children. John is also already working on an idea to capture stories of local heroes and make them searchable and “crowdsourcable” (if that’s not a word it should be). A really cool idea that I think they might end up spending some time on and I hope they do.

Our team (Gini, Josi, Rose, Joel and myself) decided to focus on seeing if we could somehow improve the immediate influences around a child. This idea started life during the rapid-fire ideas part of the day (I think it came from Gini), and it was great to see its progress over the weekend. Our area of focus was this: When some children have a spark of aspiration, they do not know what to do about it and do not have the support network around them to help encourage them to explore their aspirations further. We wanted to improve a child’s immediate influences.

MOAUM TFInnovation Pic 2

We went back and forth on the values of mentoring, but we realised that often a child’s immediate influences lacked anyone that could act as a true mentor (i.e. someone with sufficient information to be able to point a child in the right direction or make the right connections).

We then thought about coaching, which does not require domain specific knowledge but is typically based on the ability to ask encouraging questions to provide direction and encouragement. I personally know several successful people (including CEOs and startup founders amongst others) who use coaches. High quality leadership training programmes, like Teach First and On Purpose, also often provide coaches. We believed that coaching would allow (at least some) young people to be able to start focusing on what was possible and how to get there.

The idealistic, very unrealistic goal would be to provide professional coaching for each child.

The solution that we came up with that could be feasible in terms of resources was called Aspirations Academy.

We targeted at Year 9 students – we believed that this was just before they have to start making some of the significant choices that will affect their future. We looked back at our own experiences from school and we believed that it would have been helpful to have a guide at that point in our lives.

Aspirations Academy’s formal programme is structured as follows:

MOAUM TFInnovation Pic3

Sep – Dec of Year 9: Each child would pick someone in his or her life that they felt cared about them and was a positive influence to be their guide. If they could not think of anyone then we would find them one from a pool of volunteers.

Jan – Feb of Year 9: We would then provide training on coaching skills to both the child and their chosen guide – both would be equipped to have better discussions. The training would be done in two groups, one of children and the other with the guides.

Mar – Jun of Year 9: After the training is complete, we would run three fully facilitated and supported workshops where the child and the guide would work with professional coaches to talk through future life choices. These training sessions would be clearly structured and focus on self-reflection, exploring aspirations and setting SMART goals that could be followed up on. The end of the last session would form a coaching plan between the guide and the child for the next six months, determined by the child, his or her guide and the professional coaches supporting the workshops. Every child will have different responses to coaching and will need varying levels of support, so we wanted to be non-prescriptive in our approach.

Jun of Year 9 – Nov of Year 10: We would follow up and make sure that the plans decided in the final session we acted upon, and help solve any issues. We would provide remote professional coaching support to the guides if they have any questions.

Nov of Year 10: We would run a workshop with the children to see what they have got out of coaching and provide them with support in any work experience applications or other areas that they might find useful.

Our formal relationship would end in Nov of Year 10 but we hoped that the coaching relationships would continue long after.

We liked the idea because:

  • It tackled a specific issue of children who have aspiration but lack the support help them figure out the right path
  • It tried to utilise a potentially untapped resource – people close to the children already – by upskilling them; this makes the whole concept scalable
  • The fact that the guides were people close to the child and invested in their futures meant that this could be the start of a long-term relationship with (hopefully) positive results for both sides
  • The coaching skills that the children and guides receive could have a “ripple effect” in the communities with which they live, if they apply the techniques to other people in their lives. We were making the world more self-reflective, and that could only be a good thing

A nice cold beer (again) followed a long day, as well as four amazing leaders of social businesses presenting at what was, I am told, known as a “cock-up club” – each of them described various mistakes they had made and what they learnt from them. Amusing tales with practical lessons for us all. Thanks again Alex, Charlie, Jamie and Sam.


The final day. The morning was spent putting together the pitch documents, all very good fun but not too much to really write about except that I think we worked quite well as a team and Josi and Rose especially took the bull by the horns and got things done – really impressive work.

Sunday afternoon was spent by each of the teams pitching their ideas to a group of “dragons” – well-respected individuals from education and social enterprise. The pitch was 4 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions and with the Teach First team having a very draconian approach to time! There was a really great energy in the room and all the teams had interesting ideas, most of which had sprung up in discussion over this weekend.

Our idea was relatively well thought through and our pitch was well structured and delivered with clarity, but I personally feel it could have been a bit sharper overall:

  • The judges questions about our idea not sparking aspirations suggests that we should have explained the problem that we were addressing with more clarity
  • We should have spent more time focusing on what coaching skills are and why anyone can improve on their coaching skills without “content” knowledge
  • We should have focused more on the untapped resource, the long term relationships and the community “ripple effect” that this idea could lead to; we got stuck on trying to focus on tangible impacts rather than talking big picture impact – and if I genuinely believe that if we got this plan right it might have both broad and deep improvement for the children, guides and society at large
  • We had some clear views on how much the project might cost, but I think we needed further clarity on where the money might come from to pay for it
  • We could have had a bit more of the “wow” factor of some of the other great pitches – we missed the impact of ripping paper, role-playing etc!

This is not taking anything away from what I believe was high quality work from our team – it was a great combined effort to get to where we did. It is just my reflection on where we might have polished up if we had a bit more time, resource and that beautiful thing known as hindsight.

The three fantastic ideas that attracted the dragons’ attention and deservedly won the prizes were:

  • A programme of cross-curriculum learning opportunities for students with the aim of building and tracking skills development
  • A new approach to providing A level students with a wide range of work experience and project-based learning opportunities alongside mentoring (the team that my wife was on)
  • A method to embed a growth mindset (as described by Dweck) in schools via student ambassadors – this project is especially exciting as it is ready to start a pilot, with a member of the team having a mandate to do exactly this kind of thing

It seems like at least two of these winning ideas are going to explored further with support from Teach First, co.create and others – a great outcome from the event and best of luck to the teams as they progress! In addition, many of the other ideas are going to be taken further too, and I wish everyone the best of luck as they progress and I’m happy to help where I can – just get in touch!

And that was that. A few hours later we were on our train back to London. My wife and I both finished up tired but energised, positive and ready to change the world!


I personally got everything I was looking for from this weekend:

  • Meet people who are passionate about new ways of thinking about education in its broadest sense
  • Engage with the process and learn new ways of thinking about problems
  • Get some feedback and thoughts on my idea from those involved in educating young people today
  • Learn more about Teach First, especially their role in education innovation

If there was one thing I would take away from the whole weekend, it is this: There is currently a space for ideas that focus on the problem of building aspirations in children and giving them the tools and mindsets to be able to realise these aspirations. Watch this space, as my take on how this might be possible is coming very soon.

Finally, if you have the time and have any interest in education then get yourself to one of these Teach First weekends. If you couldn’t tell from the above then let me say again that I really, really liked it. And, amazingly, it was FREE!

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have any thoughts on aspirations? Role models? Coaching as a tool for children? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.



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