Like many graduates, Katie Smith, who left Leeds University in July, is finding it tough to get a job. But unlike some of her fellow-graduates, Katie is hoping to use contacts made at school to help her to get a foot on the career ladder.
Katie is a former pupil and head girl of Streatham & Clapham High School, one of a group of 29 Girls' Day School Trust (GDST) establishments throughout the country that have been using the extended network available via the group to do pioneering work on the kind of "soft skills" pupils need to forge a career – skills that employers have long said that today's school-leavers lack.
As head girl, Katie attended a GDST Young Leaders conference, where it wasn't only teamwork exercises that gave her self-confidence a boost – she also made crucial contacts. "I remembered after university that I'd met someone at the conference who might be able to help me get the theatre internship I really wanted," says Katie. "I gave her a ring and she arranged for me to meet her sister, who works as an assistant to the artistic director of a London theatre. I've now had an interview and hope I will get an internship – it's four weeks of unpaid work but an excellent chance to meet people and gain experience."
Networking, a vital skill that seems easy to some, is difficult for teenagers and young people starting out, says Hilary French, head of GDST's Central Newcastle High School. "Getting that first contact can be difficult," she says. "That's the benefit of the GDST wider network – it gives girls those contacts through former pupils who have gone on to work in the law, medicine, finance, journalism or the media."
As soon as they reach Year 10, girls at Central Newcastle High are given not only a school email address but one on the group's Minerva website, a networking site linking them to more than 45,000 members – all girls who are at, or have gone through, Trust schools. By the sixth form, all GDST students become signed-up members.
"It's a great resource – if a pupil wants to study law, they can discover who works in that area and find a mentor", says former GDST pupil Susan Croft, who now runs the Trust's Career Start Programme, delivered primarily to sixth-formers. Ten professional trainers from the programme supplement careers staff in the schools by providing interactive training sessions, concentrating on management and leadership, goal-setting and memory skills, as well as networking, time-management and independent learning – what Croft calls "added value" on top of the academic subjects taught by the schools. They also help out with careers events such as evenings at which girls can learn to "work" a room for contacts by mingling with staff, governors and parents.
At Sutton High School, the head Stephen Callaghan says that the team has added to careers work already done by his staff. "Recently, they joined us for a planned careers exercise for three days after AS-levels," he says. "We put pupils into mixed groups with people whom they hadn't met before – they watched a film and then took part in practical exercises using teamwork to learn about international trade. The careers team helped with relevant information on business skills, management and networking".
The team support and Minerva network have proved invaluable as an extra resource, according to another GDST head, Sally Davis, whose 236-strong sixth form at Howell's School in Llandaff, Cardiff, includes 81 boys. Question panels with former pupils (including video links for those unable to get to Llandaff) are popular.
Students will need a degree of emotional resilience to cope with the changes in a world where no job is for life, and should be well prepared, according to Davis. "What if things go wrong in a career?" she asks. "What do you do? We talk to pupils, for example, about the difference between being assertive and aggressive. Former pupils coming back here have made it clear to the pupils how emotionally tough you have to be in your working life. Our girls and boys need basic training and preparation for this".
Susan Croft says that it is particularly important to deliver these skills to girls because of the career opportunities now available to them. "Our parents grew up in a male-dominated business world, but things are very different now," she says. "Opportunities are definitely there for girls, and the skills we provide help them to make the most of them."