Occasionally my work makes me look in the mirror. It’s not always comfortable viewing.
Designers of public services are used to using Pareto logic: you seek the 80% of benefit by actively letting the edge cases slide, even if the edge cases are actually pretty big. On many services it’s probably acceptable to treat 20% of users like technical debt — it may be an inconvenience to them but nothing really serious will happen. Sometimes it’s not acceptable, sometimes it should be the other way round.
Let me give you an example. In the UK last year about 27% of year 11 pupils (roughly 200,000) failed to get the magic formula of 5 good GCSE passes including Maths & English. This formula opens the door to the next level of qualifications, apprenticeships and generally speaking, opportunity.
Of those who fail first-time round, about 80% fail again and continue to fail. Once this happens, many of the basic ideals of adult life (owning a home, enjoying a stable family life, working on a job you enjoy etc.) start to accelerate away from you at increasing speed. I can relate to this because it happened to me.
I hated school and school hated me back. Aside from Art and English I managed to fall out with every teacher I had. Most problematic kids were given a report card for a few weeks which they had to get ticked by their teachers — I was put on a report for a year and I had a book in which they were obliged to write increasingly testy comments about my diffident or sometimes outright bad behaviour during lessons. My parents were repeatedly hauled up to the school for a dressing down by my House Head who eventually suggested that suspension — or possibly expulsion — might be the best tool to ‘focus the mind’.
This was particularly hard on my Dad, who as an Indian immigrant had worked his arse off to build a career, beating a lot of institutional racism on the way and not unreasonably expected me to take advantage of any opportunities that came my way. Like a decent, free, education for instance.
My secondary school always had a reputation for being a bit rough (it’s been in special measures since 2016) but when I was there you could do well if you wanted to and many of my friends went on to university and got good jobs. One of them even became a film star. The problem was me. I just about got the minimum requirement to get into the 6th form and was allowed to retake my Maths GCSE, which I had to have two goes at before I finally scraped through at 18, finding out along the way that I was terrible at exams. Predictably, I screwed up my A levels but I did at least now have the key to the magic Maths door, so on my last day of Secondary school I walked out relieved I’d never have to go back*.
Happy as I was to get out of school the reality of the situation hit me as I tried to get my adult life started. I badly wanted to be a graphic designer and managed to get freelance work but back in the day art directors treated young designers like canon fodder and it was a hard environment for a 19 year old who was unsure of his own abilities. Not least this was because design is often subjective and unlike most of my peers I didn’t have the protective armour of an art college degree to ‘prove’ I knew what I was doing. I remember one interview where the Editor of Total Film magazine looked at my portfolio liked I’d handed him a used kleenex and pretty much asked me what the fuck I was doing in his office wasting his time. A combination of lack of experience and insecurity about my poor academic performance torched what little self-confidence I had and after a year I bailed out of my dream. I bounced around a series of jobs I was obviously going to get fired from, including selling screws (yes, really). Eventually I washed up designing technical manuals for a shower company. It was not what I’d dreamed of.
Sheer unhappiness pushed me to consider getting back into the education system. I tried doing a Philosophy A level at a local college and while I enjoyed the lectures, essays and exams continued to be my kryptonite and I was fazed by the bright 18 year olds on the course. They knew how to do this stuff and I didn’t. After the second term I stopped turning up — it was too intimidating.
Another year passed and by chance I found out that some degree courses would admit you using professional experience as a substitute for academic qualifications. By this time I was pretty desperate and hustled like my life depended on it. I wanted to do Psychology but eventually go onto an Art & Design degree because I’d already got experience as a designer so they let me in despite my shitty academic record. At 23 I finally felt like I was getting my life started but in those days the competition was much lower and my student loan was about £5000. It isn’t like that now.
Recently I went into an FE college to talk to students at level 2 and 3 about their experiences (Level 2 is equivalent to GCSEs, Level 3 to A Levels, higher apprenticeships etc). For one activity I put post-it’s and sharpies into their hands, invited them to look at my cleverly constructed ‘student journey’ diagram and invited them to tell me about their lives, one square of paper at a time. It slowly dawned on me that I’d constructed an environment that was comfortable for me without worrying about whether it worked for them. Probably, I wasn’t the first.
Many of the students on the Level 2 courses just hadn’t got on with school for one reason or another. We asked the group if they had any questions for us and one of them asked us how we got to do the jobs we were doing. I told her that I hadn’t got on with school either and had bounced around for years before settling on something I wanted to do. “That” she said “I did not expect”.
Had I been at school today it would most likely have been much harder for me. Today, schools wrestle with far greater student numbers and funding is much tighter so it’s doubtful that I’d have been allowed to coast into the 6th form and have two bites at my Maths GCSE. Schools generally do try and keep students if they can — partly because of the funding they bring — but I wasn’t a willing student who’d slipped up at exam time, I was a persistent pain in the arse who’d managed to alienate almost all his teachers. Much more likely given my poor performance in exams, I’d have joined the significant number of people in college who ‘churn’ at Level 2, taking multiple courses but failing to progress to Level 3 where the path to real opportunity usually starts.
Engaging students for whom the traditional pattern of school and academic achievement doesn’t click is a wicked problem, with no ‘right’ answer and no single silver bullet solution. It needs tackling from multiple directions and requires educators and policymakers to be brave and visionary.
For those in search of inspiration there are brilliant, optimistic service ideas being trialled in the real world. Here are some of them:
Noam is doing Design club — delivered in after-school clubs and in partnership with people like Coder Dojo, this allows students to design and prototype new services, building design skills and empathy while creating a tangible artefact to demonstrate your newly-honed skills.
Thanks for reading,
*Some years ago I did go back, getting dragged unwillingly to a school re-union. One of my former teachers was there and he asked me what I’d been up to since school. When I told him I’d eventually gone to college and now had an MA he shook his head, chuckled and walked away. He thought I was making it up. I didn’t really blame him but I did take the opportunity to flick the V’s behind his back, obviously.