The start of my Winston Churchill Fellowship

I’ve been lucky enough to get a Winston Churchill Fellowship to travel around Canada and find out about the country’s career development system. It is a great opportunity and one which I’ve been preparing for in a range of ways over the last couple of months. In particular I’ve been contacting loads of different people in Canada and trying to arrange to meet them while I’m over here. But I’ve also been trying to keep a million projects on the go while I was doing all of this and I haven’t had as much time as I would have liked to just think about what I’m hoping to do while I’m over here. However, that is what blogging is all about do I’m going to try and write myself into clarity over the next few days.

Yesterday was crazy – up at 0515 – taxi – airport – plane – hotel –swimming pool – dinner –fall asleep watching a film in bed. My family are accompanying me for some bits of my fellowship, and I’m taking some leave while I’m out here so yesterday was undertaken in the company of a highly energetic four year old boy and an endlessly enquiring six year old girl. Exhausting, but we are here, and I’m now sitting in the hotel lobby at 0500 thinking about why I’m here.

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OK, so why am I here? (probably best if we confine this question to being about this project – 5am is not a time to get existential). I’ve spent the last couple of years building up a fairly good working knowledge of how the UK career development system works. I understand some of its complexities, I can see the differences between what happens in schools, with adults, in universities and in private career coaching. I understand something of the history, practice, policy and so on. Learning all of this has been interesting and it inevitably leads you towards counter-factuals. What would have happened if… how would career development be different if… what if funding was higher… what if the qualifications of the workforce were greater…? and so on and so forth.
Most of the thinking that I do is essentially along these lines. If I could change things what would happen, would it be better would it be worse? When I’m in research mode this turns into the question “what would have happened?” How would it all have gone if they hadn’t done anything? what would have happened if they’d done more of it? What was the impact of this thing as opposed to everything else? Counter-factuals are what this kind of work is all about.

International comparators are about making counter-factuals real. If we can find someone, somewhere else in the world who has done something different we can see if their approach is better or worse than ours. If it is better we can steal their idea and do it ourselves. This kind of approach is what leads people like Michael Gove to get all excited about the education system in South Korea. He can look at them, see that their system is delivering higher attainment than ours and conclude that we need to do things just like them. The problem is that human societies and their education and employment systems are highly complex and a single decision (let’s paint all of the classrooms red, teach all kids in classes of 67, spend three hours a day in vigorous physical activity) is unlikely to account for everything that is different. This is the problem with reading about stuff that is happening elsewhere. People report the new and exciting stuff that they are doing, but they don’t report the “natural” context within which it is taking place. Yet it is this context that determines both how their intervention works out and whether it is possible to borrow or transplant the intervention to another context.

So, what am I doing in Canada? Essentially I’m trying to understand the extended counter-factual of the Canadian career development system. I’m hoping that over the next two months I can embed myself in the policy, practice and people that make Canada’s career development system and that I can build a sufficiently complex understanding of what works, how it works and why it works to make some judgements about what might be interesting or useful to bring back to the UK.

I’ll be writing it all down and sticking it up here – so I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has opinions on what I’m saying – or from any Canadians who want to talk or meet up.

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