Sharing Spark+Mettle’s Belief #2



The key to a fair society is having not only equal opportunity to jobs further up the social ladder, but also equal respect for each other’s positions, so that we can take satisfaction and pride in our work, whatever it is that we do. We want to join the movement that takes a new look at the value of jobs. It is possible to find work that is of high social worth in almost every career sector, from hospital cleaners to human-rights lawyers. You don’t have to be an A grade student to find a rewarding job.


For high-achieving young people from less privileged backgrounds, there are many barriers to social mobility that can prevent them from doing as well and getting as far as their more affluent peers. They may well end up in jobs that do not employ their talent and mettle to their full extent. This is a problem that has gained a lot of attention in recent years, although a radical improvement has yet to be seen.

There have been several reports in the last few years which have found that social mobility in the UK is not only low relative to other countries, but also getting worse in relation to its own previous levels. In a 2010 OECD Report, for example, Britain ranked lowest amongst OECD countries in terms of social mobility.[1]  A 2005 report from the London School of Economics found that children born to poor families are now less likely to break free of their background than they were in the past.[2]  These findings are mirrored by a Sutton Trust report from 2010: it shows that children’s levels of achievement are more closely linked to their parents’ background in England than in many other developed nations. In addition, an updated analysis of 20 countries looking at the relationship between the number of books at home (an indicator of parental education levels) and children’s test scores, placed England and Scotland at the bottom of the international ranking.[3]  Furthermore, the Sutton Trust found that failing to improve low levels of social mobility could cost the UK economy up to £140 billion a year by 2050—or an additional 4% of Gross Domestic Product.[4]

In 2009 Alan Milburn chaired a wide-ranging study into social mobility.[5] Like the Sutton Trust’s report the following year, “Unleashing Aspirations” suggested that young people in England should have access to much better careers advice to boost their ambitions. The report also criticised informal recruitment systems, such as internships and work placement, as becoming a back-door for better-off, better-connected youngsters. Then-ITV executive chairman Michael Grade, a member of the panel, said the current internship system, based on “who you know”, was “grossly unfair”. The study also recommended a national mentoring programme.

But even if the barriers to social mobility can be effectively broken down, the underlying problem remains: this society still favours a hierarchical structure. Jobs and workers are not valued in terms of their social worth, and there is an inequality of respect. There is an assumption, for example, that unskilled labour has less intrinsic reward and benefit than demanding and better-paid professional positions or traditional ‘caring’ careers such as teaching or nursing. The new economics foundation published a study in 2009 in which it took a new approach to looking at the value of work. It reviewed the social worth of a cross-section of jobs, from bankers to waste recycling workers.[6] The study posits that hospital cleaners play a vital role in the workings of our healthcare facilities—cleaning hospitals, protecting against infection—and they also contribute towards wider health outcomes. The importance of these cleaners is often underestimated and undervalued in the way they are paid and treated. The nef estimated, however, that for every £1 they are paid, over £10 in social value is generated. Using the same approach to determine the social value of tax accounts (some of whom have the sole purpose of helping the rich and companies pay less tax), the nef estimated that for a a salary of between £75,000 and £200,000 tax accountants destroy £47 of value for every pound in value they generate.


There are already a small number of organisations committed to improving social mobility, including the Social Mobility Foundation, Pure Potential, and the Taylor Bennett Foundation, as well as other work-experience and job-focused organisations such as Tomorrow’s People and the Prince’s Trust. They all offer something compelling and propose solutions to the problem, such as stipends for work experience placements, or seminars and coaching aimed at helping academically-able students to apply to university. And although there are many young people who have benefited from their services across the country, a systemic change for the better has not yet occurred.

There are several highly-regarded organisations that have conducted research into a fairer spread of opportunities and value, including the new economics foundation and The Young Foundation. Of course, it takes much time and persuasion for such a huge shift in theory to trickle into the political frame and then into the daily lives of a population. That day, presumably, is far away. But it doesn’t mean that organisations in the meantime have to settle for a quick-fix. There are ways to build future radical change into current day-to-day practice.


We see our approach as complementary to the positive work being done in the field of social mobility and job training so far. Our aims however are set high. We have the ultimate hope of systemic change that both allows for the social worth of jobs to be a key factor in determining their pay and that affords the opportunity for everyone to feel valued for their work. This would lead to greater fairness and would enable people to feel passionate about, proud of, and fulfilled by what they do.

This is why our approach is holistic. Although the UK is far from being the society we would like it to be, there is much room to improve levels of fulfillment in careers, especially when looking at the needs and opportunities of disadvantaged young people. This is where Spark & Mettle comes in.

Firstly, we work with young people on a highly-individualised basis—assessing where they are, helping them discover what their optimal career would be, and producing a tailored programme that helps them get there. This whole process is underpinned by the aim to help them understand what they can do in order to pursue a fulfilling career—their vocation. A core component of our approach is the adoption of Vygotsky’s theory on the Zone of Proximal Development.[7] His theory refers to the range of tasks a child can complete independently and those completed with the guidance and assistance of adults or more-skilled children. The lower limit of ZPD is the level of skill reached by the child working independently. The upper limit is the level of additional responsibility the child can accept with the assistance of an able instructor. The ZPD captures the child’s cognitive skills that are in the process of maturing and can be accomplished only with the assistance of a more-skilled person. The ZPD is not static but instead moves as the person develops new skills. Vygotsky’s theory is typically applied to young children, however we believe that learning can be a never-ending process throughout the course of life. Using scaffolded assistance, as the ZPD theory suggests, is particularly beneficial to young people who have not been given a lot of individual attention and personalised support. By assessing at the start of the programme the ZPD of each individual recruit, we can then tailor the programme to suit their needs. And by going through this process, the young people will by the end of the programme have a better understanding of what they are able to achieve both at that time and in the future.

Secondly, we work with less privileged young people with a cross-section of interests and abilities. We do not exclusively work with the academically able, nor do we work with very specific target groups. We deliberately reach out to a diverse range of young people (in terms of age, religion, ethnicity, life experience, family background and academic achievement) in order to create an unusually broad group, each of whom will learn much from the others on their programme. And although our co-creators and alumni (and even the mentors) come from very different places, they are all united in their drive to apply their spark and mettle to careers of high social worth.

Thirdly, we have devised programmes that incorporate the best practices of other organisations and we have blended them with unique components in an innovative way. Our Star Track programme incorporates the best practices of other social mobility organisations, for example:

  • Like the Prince’s Trust, it takes on young people regardless of academic ability.
  • Like Tomorrow’s People, it tailors its programme to suit the individual needs of its young people.
  • Like Pure Potential, it works in conjunction with teachers and parents.
  • Like the Social Mobility Foundation, it utilises the internet to provide an e-mentoring component to the programme.
  • Like the Taylor Bennett Foundation, it offers guaranteed summer work placements and provides a stipend.

Yet it also has several unique components:

  • It specifically targets young people aged 16 to 24 from less privileged backgrounds who have an idea about what they want to do but do not know how to start.
  • It asks its co-creators to help devise their course structure and outcomes so that they are active participants in their learning process.
  • It purposefully engages them in directing their spark and mettle towards careers of high social worth in a broad range of sectors, including finance and IT.
  • It finds mentors who are distinguished and passionate practitioners in the career sector of the participant’s choice to inspire and advise them.
  • It provides four stimulating lunch parleys each year as part of its training.
  • It includes a unit of study on the philosophy of work and ways to achieving fulfillment.

Our hope is that by doing so our promising young people will be able to go onto further education and training, armed with a holistic understanding of what is needed for them to be fulfilled. Eventually we anticipate that they will achieve their full potential and have increased job satisfaction, whatever it is that they choose to do, perhaps even generating greater income and wealth. This should lead to greater levels of well-being in their future lives.

[1] — accessed 4/3/11






[7] Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.