Emma Nolan
Emma Nolan
High-level teaching assistant at Chadsgrove School and Specialist Sports College (Worcestershire, West Midlands)
Ambassador cohort
2020 Careers Leader programme

We used to work to the Gatsby benchmarks - now we get them to work for us

Emma Nolan's experience of the Careers Leader programme helped her adjust her school’s career guidance to fit their unique context. 

I always wanted to get into teaching. When I lost my mum about nine years ago, it gave me this lightbulb moment to just follow my dreams. I started doing some volunteering work in the school my children went to, and my career just grew from there.

I joined a mainstream middle school as a teaching assistant. There was a pupil who needed to transition to a special school, and I was asked to accompany him. He ended up going to Chadsgrove and it just blew my mind. It's such an amazing school with amazing pupils, and it completely changed my world.

Now I’m a high-level teaching assistant there with a responsibility for all careers guidance. Although we don't call it careers, we call it transitioning – the preparation for adulthood.

At Chadsgrove we've got pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties, others with moderate learning difficulties and some pupils with severe learning difficulties. Our careers guidance has to mould it to fit in with them – and we've worked tirelessly to make everything as bespoke and as meaningful as possible for our pupils.

Bespoke careers guidance

Before the Careers Leader programme, the biggest challenge I had was interpreting the Gatsby Benchmarks and figuring out what they mean for our students specifically. I've got some students who could do GCSEs, but I've also got pupils who will go into social care provision after school.

The Careers Leader programme helped me look at what fits each individual pupil best and which pathway will be right for them. It’s all about pulling the situation apart and looking at it from different angles. Using this approach also gave me a chance to sit down with the school’s post-16 lead from the senior leadership team and unpick everything together.

Getting the whole school on board

Rather than looking at careers as just a post-16 thing, I’ve worked to make it a whole-school commitment.

We’ve broadened careers guidance out to everyone at the school, right down to nursery. We’ve linked it in with learning, the pathway pupils need to be on and what they're going to achieve at the end of their school career. So rather than us fitting in with the benchmarks, we're getting the benchmarks to fit in with us. It's more of a holistic approach, we’re not just ticking a box. We’ve made careers more meaningful.

We’re also looking at everything in-depth, as in which bits work for which students. Before we saw it as all pupils have to do X, Y, and Z. Now we ask, “Is that meaningful for that student?”

I go to the Careers and Enterprise Company working group meetings and the Careers Leader programme has helped me converse better in those, because I understand what our obligations are and what we have to do as a school.

Learning online

I think there are real positives to doing the programme online. The fact that you haven't got to travel three or four hours to get to a meeting, and then you can just carry on with things afterwards is great. I must admit, it has been difficult not talking to people in person sometimes, especially the longer lockdown has gone on. But there's swings and roundabouts to both sides of it.

It’s been nice to get in contact with similar schools online through the programme. We were able to talk about the similar obstacles we come across and I've got some great connections now. We've been emailing resources to each other. It’s been useful just to know that it’s not just us, and that other schools are having the same issues as we are. I think, in a way, doing this online forces you to be social in ways you weren't before, which is quite unique, especially for a learning environment.

Project alumni

My pilot project for the programme was about setting up an alumni for the school. I've got students who come here at two years old and stay until they’re 19, so transitioning post-16 can be really tough for them. I've set up our alumni with a bit of a twist – I’ve got the parents involved as well as the students.

I've put on two events so far, and the third one is going to link up ex-students and ex-parents with current students and current parents to talk about transitioning. With COVID-19, it’s been even tougher for the students and parents as they can't even go and visit the colleges they plan to go to. I've also brought in certain colleges to speak online.

Transitioning is a really busy and anxious time for both parents and students. Setting up the alumni has really helped with that, and I don't think I would have thought of doing it before the Careers Leader programme.

Ambitions for the students

The students have ambitions and aspirations. And with the changes to our careers guidance, it’s definitely getting them to think about transitions in a different way. It’s also showed me that they definitely need to have it embedded into lessons a lot younger than we originally did so they can have a smoother transition.

There are lots of conversations going on now. We’re talking about all the different roles the students can do and all the different jobs that are within whatever industry they're interested in.

I have two boys with great IT skills who are desperate to work for the BBC. Before they wanted to be footballers or YouTubers. Now they're talking about video editing and trying to get some work experience at the BBC. It's nice seeing how they're changing their mindset, how they’re looking at the different jobs they can do and how they’re linking it to things they’re really good at.

Ambitions for the school

I would really like to start setting up a whole in-school business enterprise that incorporates everything, from earning wages all the way down to producing a product to sell. It can be a whole-school thing, or a whole cohort thing that they can get involved in, and I want the students to really make it their own.

It’s really tricky to say where we will be this time next year, because we just don't know with COVID-19. Ideally, I'd like to get the students out into the community so that the community links with our business enterprise.

My ultimate goal is to make sure that students leave Chadsgrove with no anxieties and that they’re truly ready for the world of work.

Making careers guidance work for us

The Careers Leader programme is definitely worth it. It’s great for upskilling and it will help you to focus on exactly where you want to take your school. For the second year running, we’ve got all eight of the Gatsby Benchmarks, but to achieve that we’ve had to really think outside the box. We used to work to the benchmarks, but now we get the benchmarks to work for us.

The Careers Leader programme has also given me some great ideas to take to the leadership team, to get those ideas rolling. I have the confidence to question things and the confidence to really dissect how we're delivering careers guidance to our pupils.

If you’re looking for targeted training and support to improve careers provision at your school, find out more information about our Careers Leader programme.

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