Launched as a two-year pilot, Words for Work is a National Literacy Trust (NLT) programme aimed at improving young people's communication and employability skills. Local business volunteers and secondary school pupils come together through creative workshops to explore speaking and listening in the workplace.
"For years employers have bemoaned young people's inability to present themselves effectively, work in a team or engage with the public," says project manager Sally Melvin. "With 'top down' pressures on schools to stick to a rigid curriculum and focus exclusively on exam results, the teaching of essential life skills is too often neglected."
After testing and developing the scheme with two enthusiastic secondary schools in its first year, NLT expanded its pilot to another 13 secondary schools in year two, eventually engaging 450 pupils and 180 business volunteers.
"I've learned about body language and how to discuss different issues; how to communicate with people I don't know," says Norman, a 14 year old from a Birmingham academy. "School is not going to help me get a job, but Words for Work can help."
Feeding back on the project, participating teachers related how pupils' attainment levels increased and, significantly for the Trust, other staff acknowledged the positive effect of this 'off-curriculum' intervention. "The confidence levels of students trebled throughout the project," said a teacher at a Lancashire school. "The change was unbelievable."
However, not all schools fully engaged with the project, and a thorough evaluation allowed the Trust to amend its approach.
"We learnt two things: we needed a local contact to drive the project forward and, as a small team, we didn't have the capacity for a national roll-out," says Sally. "So we went back to PHF who listened to our new plans to grow the project."
A second grant is now supporting the Trust to engage local organisations who have an existing relationship with schools and businesses to act as regional hubs. "We are effectively franchising the programme, actively recruiting partners like education business partnerships and football community trusts, to manage and deliver Words for Work," says Sally.
Although recognising quality assurance and effective evaluation may become future challenges, the Trust hopes to have set up 20 hubs within two years, each supporting five secondary schools - potentially reaching thousands of children.
Prompted by its success with Words for Work, NLT hopes a forthcoming curriculum review will support a change of culture where teachers are trained in the value of speaking and listening skills.