All of us in the UK who went through the education system have a lot to be thankful for. None of us had the same education: there have been more reforms than I care to research since free public education came about and even then every child, teenager, or young adult’s experience of shared education will be different.
Still, whether we were a lover or a hater, school will have played at least a minor (but probably a major) part in making us who we are today. Which is why it frustrates me when people criticise the UK education system. Healthy debate and challenge is just that – healthy. Lobbying, advocacy and progressive politicians and Department of Education employees with a belief they hold fast to – all of them need to confront the system head on and push it to its limits to test it. Else there would be no change and we would still be getting the cane and not working to a curriculum (there are still some anti-curriculum views out there and, I dare say, some pro-caning ones too). Well-thought out change is good.
I am co-founder, along with Anne-Marie Imafidon, of Stemettes – a social enterprise inspiring the next generation of girls (aged five to 22) into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers through panel events, hackathons, a mentoring scheme and Outbox Incubator, the incubator creating young female entrepreneurs in STEM. In December we are launching OtotheB.com – the first online platform for girls in STEM.
At the Stemettes, we would never criticise the schools, headmasters and headmistresses, classroom teachers, Deans of universities, academics, lecturers and everyone else who help our girls and young women to learn. They are overrun with objectives, targets, paperwork, reports and much more. With a class of pupils and students before them, they graciously impart the education that the government or senior leaders have told them to, in and around the rest of their responsibilities and all of the time-consuming bureaucracy. I wish teachers could break the mould, perhaps education would progress at a faster rate. But they can’t. Their jobs will, for the most part, rely on towing-the-line.
Well, we can break those moulds. We know we are lucky to exist as a non-traditional educational organisation outside of the mainstream education system, untouched by the Department of Education. We don’t seek to provide an antidote, nor an alternative, but a supplement. Like taking your vitamins – it can never do any harm and will probably do the world of good.
While I always got on well with the school and university systems, Anne-Marie – though one of the top in the country, academically speaking – did not. She wasn’t suited to the classroom environment, she didn’t care to pay attention for an hour, and she didn’t feel challenged a lot of the time.
So Anne-Marie stepped outside the system, outside the box if you will, and created our own ‘education vitamin’. Outside of the classroom, outside of the teacher’s total responsibility, outside of their local geography sometimes and outside of all the restrictions, rules and regulations that can make education so narrow today.
She wasn’t setting out to change government education, not even tweak it. Hers was the dessert to the government’s mail meal, with all the “naughty” bits left in too. She introduced exciting ice breakers, music, a very informal working environment, a business focus, presentations in which girls were allowed to act, dance and sing, a judging panel of real women from industry and – of most benefit a lot of the time – a trip to the offices of that particular STEM company. Those girls love everything from the conference rooms, to trading floors to the toilets!
Part of our success, we believe, is that we aren’t too prescriptive. Things are very informal as you may have gathered, but what we really want is to let the girls know that they are in the driving seat, the creators of “tech”. They put on their business hats and they plan, design, create and collaborate as though they were real business women (and let’s face it, they’re only an inch away from being so, from the moment they decide they will start a business, they’re a business woman).
At our hackathons, for example, sponsored by corporates like Bloomberg and open to the public, girls make business websites, retail sites and social media platforms. At our panels, the girls meet women working in STEM industries, some who will like football just like them, some who will like nail varnish, just like them. These girls step up to the networking plate at these times, some of them confidently and some of them with some trepidation. But the next time they’ll be more confident.
We saw this sense of ‘doing it their own way’ most strongly during our Outbox Incubator, an incubator for young females entrepreneurs who want to create STEM start-ups to tackle the lack of female entrepreneurs. The moment they entered our doors in South London, they were entrepreneurs. There was no one telling them “one day you might be an entrepreneur” or “well, see if you get investment and then decide if you’ll continue”. They were brand new, “straight outta Outbox” entrepreneurs. They came into their own, deciding to support each other – professionally on their projects and emotionally when one of the girls missed home. They brainstormed, asked session leads probing questions, and envisaged taking their STEM products and services to market.
We know we’re different – we were born to be different when Anne-Marie first conceived of us and we both love it that way. For the most part we have been met with huge support. But, like the government, we are under no illusions that what we are is perfect. We know that we provide a brilliant supplementary avenue which inspires girls into STEM industries and study, day after day and (thankfully) year after year.
We will keep pushing, moving, disrupting as long as change needs to happen. We will tweak the workings, redraw the outlines and re-package things we’re not quite happy with until we think that our ‘education vitamin’ is the one that will give the girls in this world the boost and energy they need (confidence, support, networks, awareness and opportunities) to help them into STEM careers.
We don’t want to change the education system. That is not ours to play with. But we absolutely do want to be the big sister that helps each and every girl with their future aspirations while they continue at school, into university and beyond.
Teachers can’t do it all. There is room for all of us.
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