When Churchill Community College brought in three local employers to talk about career opportunities, some of the “most disaffected” boys thought they were lying, says David Baldwin, executive head of Churchill and Norham High School in Tyneside.

It was a disaster. The boys hated it. They learnt nothing from it. They were difficult. And at the end of it, we were really quite embarrassed for the speakers. So we spoke to the boys, and they went, ‘Well, it was just a waste of time, wasn’t it, because I don’t know what these people are talking about, they’re just making it up. We are not going to get a job there because it doesn’t exist.’”

That’s when the school changed tack, and took the boys on a tour to visit those same three people – this time in their place of work. To save costs, they did it on bicycles.

It was a huge help in terms of motivating students who had previously taken the attitude that “everything we were teaching in the curriculum was a waste of time, and they were never going to need it,” says Baldwin.

“Partly maybe, the boys were out of breath and were more compliant at that point,” he jokes, “but more importantly, you were actually in a real place and all of them were able to say, ‘So I can get here. I never even knew this existed.’”

Accenture talked to them about managing businesses; Capita showed them the civil and electrical engineering aspects of roadway design; and an engineering company on the banks of the Tyne opened their eyes to apprenticeship opportunities.

“The children came back saying, ‘I can get to these places. I’m still not agreeing that some of the stuff we do in school is what they necessarily want, but I’m now agreeing that I need that qualification.’”

There’s a level of disadvantage among some of the pupils, which means they have very restricted horizons, says Baldwin. “However streetwise our children come across, their view of the world is limited almost to the street they live, the journey they take to school, and the surrounding streets.

“So when we talk to the children about opportunities, they don’t see them in the same way that we do. They’ll say, ‘I don’t believe you,’ because it’s not on their doorstep. They cannot see it.”

Well, I didn’t have a bike so I didn’t turn up to school that day

Cycling proficiency is one part of the school’s remedy, with all year 7s given Bikeability training. Despite it being on the primary curriculum, poverty is still a barrier, says Baldwin. “You ask them what happened and it was, ‘Well, I didn’t have a bike so I didn’t turn up to school that day. No one’s ever taught me how to ride a bike.’”

Local organisations lend bikes to the school for the duration of the training. Year 10s who have passed their road safety training can then get access to unclaimed stolen bikes that the police need to find homes for. Community partners make sure the bikes are roadworthy, then pass them on at no cost.

If transport is one barrier to employability, parental awareness of opportunities is another. A number of parents are unemployed, explains Baldwin, and others have jobs that are “very localised”, so they might not be aware of the business park that’s a 20-minute walk from the school, or the international businesses a short bus ride away on the banks of the river Tyne.

“We think poverty means that they don’t know how to find their way to navigate through the systems that they’re facing, through the opportunities and choices they could make in their life, to get them to achieve their aspirations. So it’s a poverty of understanding of how you do these things. So you talk to the children, you talk to the parents, they talk highly about what they would like to do or what they’d like their children to do, but they have absolutely no idea what the steps are.”

This is why the school has introduced “parent safaris”, an idea they borrowed from the SCHOOLS Northeast network, which last year took a group of school leaders on a tour of local businesses. Churchill Community College sent an invitation to every year 8 parent, 190 in total.

David Baldwin, executive head, Churchill Community College and Norham High School

Despite just 20 signing up, it was a huge success in terms of impact. “Parents were clearly saying to us at that point, ‘I didn’t realise the places were there.’ And, ‘Actually, this is really interesting because I’m looking for a job as well.’ So there’s a huge untapped market out there.”

Baldwin says that being part of the Gatsby careers pilot – which was run through the north east LEP in 2015-17 – made them reconsider what they’d thought of as decent careers provision. “We knew that we weren’t doing a good enough job,” admits Baldwin. “Although I have to say, I did think we were doing a better job than zero.” He’s referring to the Gatsby benchmarks, in which the school initially scored zero out of eight.

There are two parts of Gatsby that commonly catch schools out: the requirement for every single pupil to hit the requisite number of careers “encounters”, and the requirement that each encounter be “meaningful”.

However streetwise our children come across, their view of the world is limited

Baldwin was keen that their self-analysis be rigorous. “It’s like anything that you benchmark yourself against,” he says. “You can easily say, ‘Do you know what? I’m going to count that assembly we’ve just done because that was all the children in year 10.’ Great, tick. But actually, if you take it seriously it wasn’t meaningful at all.”

They took it so seriously that they used their funds from the pilot to commission Northumbria University to help them understand what “meaningful” encounters actually look like. “We spent the first year talking about the concept of meaningful. We didn’t know what it meant,” Baldwin admits, echoing a common concern among teachers.

On reflection, the leadership team also realised that the more disadvantaged young people were getting less value from their placements. The ones that didn’t have the family contacts to help them find a placement would generally be sent back to their primary schools for a week. “We thought, ‘Job done. Tick.’ Week’s work experience,” says Baldwin. “But were we actually teaching any of these children anything? Probably not, in the sense that we weren’t putting them out of their comfort zone.”

Based on the research, they’ve come up with a model where they split the year into groups of four or five, link each group with a company and give them two tasks: the first is to find out how the company makes a profit, and the second is set by the company. So printer.com set the question, “Can you tell us how effective you think our approach to staff wellbeing is?” The students combine desktop research with a day or two in the company before giving a presentation on their findings. “That is an amazing experience for them, because they’ve really had to work hard. They don’t just walk into something and go, ‘What should I do? I’ll make you cup of coffee.’”

Baldwin is clear that convincing companies to get involved is about having the right person as the school’s careers lead. Marie Jobson is employed full-time as the school’s “leader of guidance”. “If she were sitting here right now, by now she would have made a connection with you and already investigated the possibilities for you to work with our students,” Baldwin grins. “I have the most amazing person working on careers.”