James Wickes, a partner with City law firm RPC, runs a careers’ programme at his old school to increase student aspirations and broaden horizons
The sky’s the limit
‘I grew up in Dagenham, where my dad worked at Ford for more than 35 years and my mum was a part-time cleaner and healthcare assistant. I didn’t get much careers’ advice at school and I was the first person in my family to go to university. Studying law at Durham was a massive step for me, but I soon discovered that for my privately educated peers going to university was a normal expectation. Many had been heavily coached for the interview process, whereas for me it was a great unknown. I just had to wing it!
I decided then that if I was successful at getting a job in law, I would do something to help bright young people from Dagenham have fairer access to educational and employment opportunities. So, soon after being offered a training contract at RPC, I got together with a school friend to found Limitless London. Our aim was to create a level playing field for young people from less privileged backgrounds who had aspiration and talent.
We designed a personalised career guidance and support programme that would broaden horizons, nurture self-belief and awareness of opportunities, and emphasise the necessity of self-motivation and early planning.
We began working with schools across Dagenham. However, our desire to help as many young people as possible meant we were spreading ourselves too thinly. This led us to focus more closely on one school so we could make more of an impact. I contacted my former headteacher, Andy Buck, who had been tasked with leading a new secondary school set up under the PFI (private finance initiative). The idea of developing high-quality facilities to raise pupil aspirations in a deprived area chimed with our own objectives – and we began working with the Jo Richardson Community School in 2007, and with its current headteacher, Ges Smith, from 2014.
RPC supported us from the start. Limitless London’s goals of increasing social mobility aligned closely with the company’s CSR agenda to improve diversity in the legal profession. What’s more, the buy-in from RPC’s managing partners has encouraged employees across the firm to come on board with our mentoring programme.
RPC has offered help with funding, but we’ve never needed much. It’s always been more about the wealth of wisdom and experience that people are willing to share with students in Dagenham. RPC has provided internal admin resources and support for the annual programme. Employees have taken on this work, in addition to their regular responsibilities, because they genuinely care about the community and the students.
Limitless London is focused on Year 10 so that if students realise they might like to follow a particular career path then they’ve got time to improve their academic results and research, prepare and train. During careers week, everyone in the year group is offered a mock interview with volunteers from RPC and elsewhere.
We then run five career workshops over the year for a group of 20-25 students, selected after completing applications. Each pupil is matched with a mentor and after every workshop they have a one-to-one coaching session.
Four workshops are held at RPC’s St Katharine Docks offices. RPC also runs a workshop at Jo Richardson because it’s important for mentors to see mentees in their school environment. When the students meet people at RPC, they’re excited to realise that many are just like them (some, like me, may have even grown up round the corner). Often for the first time, they begin to believe that they can have a successful career in the City too.
During the workshops, students get to interview high-profile business people, often drawn from our client companies, such as Google. RPC itself has more than 750 employees and offers 25 different careers paths, and we hold a speed networking activity with people from across the organisation, including IT, design, marketing, law, accounts, finance and HR.
We also work on interview and application skills, and public speaking and presentation, as well as confidence building. We tell the students that they can achieve whatever they want, but we also give them the hard facts about being prepared to compete against students from more privileged backgrounds.
It’s great to see students confidently exploring new opportunities and challenging themselves. I mentored one student of African origin whose parents had said they couldn’t afford to pay for university. They weren’t aware of student finance, so I explained the options to the student and by the next session he was considering university. He went on to study maths at Warwick!’
Ges Smith has been the headteacher at Jo Richardson Community School since 2009. In 2018, the school won the Pearson National Teaching Award for ‘School of the Year – Making a Difference’. It has been graded good with ‘outstanding features’ by Ofsted.
‘Our comprehensive school very much mirrors the diversity that characterises much of London – and this is one of its strengths. About 60% of our 1,650 students, aged 11-18, are from ethnic minority backgrounds (mainly Eastern European, Black African and Indian). Many have had little formal schooling but often they come to us speaking three or four languages. The largest group of students are from white working-class backgrounds, with families who have often lived in Dagenham for generations.
Our school is not isolated from the issues present in our wider community (such as poor mental health, deprivation and gang culture). Yet we are close enough to the financial services hub of London to see Canary Wharf from our windows – and we want our students to feel they could have a future there.
James Wickes has been instrumental in making that aspiration a reality. Soon after he began running Limitless London at Jo Richardson, we asked if he could bring some RPC representatives to a careers event. We were expecting one or two, but James sent 14 experienced senior people to carry out formal interviews with the students and give them feedback!
The comfort zone of our students is to say ‘we are from Dagenham and we are never going to be able to do that’. They don’t ‘do’ formal – whether that’s dress, language or events, and often their parents are worried about them travelling, even to London. As a school, we don’t want them to be fearful of new experiences. We want them to know and believe they can compete with anybody – and this is what Limitless London gives them.
Visiting the RPC offices in London triggers the students’ interest in career opportunities, both in the City and beyond. It also surprises and inspires them to know that people in high flying careers are approachable, and may even have come from similar backgrounds to themselves. When that reality starts to take hold, the gap between them and success starts to close in their minds.
In 2019, James arranged for the Lord Chief Justice (along with three other judges from diverse backgrounds) to speak at our school, which was incredibly exciting for students. The fact that the most senior judge in England and Wales was making time to talk to them was validation for their efforts and meant an awful lot.
‘I clicked straight away with my mentor. We talked a lot about careers. I explained what I wanted to do, and she suggested paths I should take in order to follow my dreams. Most importantly, I learnt that there are many job opportunities out there, and you should find out more about them before you decide what you want to do in life.’ Valvine Mpiana, student
Nurturing student confidence and awareness is a process that continues throughout the year-long programme of workshops and mentoring sessions. Our students are also coached in practical skills, such as presenting and interview techniques, so that they have the necessary tools to turn their aspirations into action.
James was invited to join the Jo Richardson governing body four years ago and his input has been invaluable. He knows Dagenham of course (and went to school with one of our deputy heads) but he also brings skills and experience from the wider world that we can use to challenge existing ways of thinking and doing. He works in a really supportive way, listening and observing and then making links to what he can offer.
The foundations he has put in place have led on to more things, such as our Confidence of Class initiative, and our development of cultural capital through trips around the UK and abroad (in normal times). We’ve also set up a hardship fund for students who can’t afford the appropriate clothes for interview. We bought a suit for one of our students who had an interview at Cambridge – and he got into Homerton College!
James’s work at Jo Richardson has made us realise that businesspeople are desperate to get into schools and work with students. That’s encouraged us to reach out to other companies and ask for support. As a result, our careers provision has expanded hugely, and we have a bank of people across different businesses ready and willing to give their time for free. In fact, our local football club, West Ham United, ran an Easter holiday mentoring programme with us, with a Zoom appearance by one of the players!’