Oli de Botton, The Careers & Enterprise Company

The former head speaking up for better careers guidance

We were trying to be the best of the new, and the best of the old

After putting oracy at the heart of a counter-cultural school that has helped shape Labour’s election offer, 
Oli de Botton is on a mission to transform careers education

At a recent parent’s evening, Oli de Botton was told his son’s Year 3 class would be studying oracy this term.

He began to well up. And he recalls his first thought was ‘Gosh this is actually happening’.

De Botton has spent much of his career championing oracy – the ability to communicate effectively through speech.

As co-founder, curriculum lead and later head of School 21, one of the country’s most renowned progressive free schools, he revived the concept by putting speaking skills at the heart of its curriculum.

Last year, the Labour party – looking increasingly likely to form the next government – said it would “weave oracy into lessons throughout school”.

De Botton says he has always tried to “provide a provocative challenge to how we do things”. Setting up a progressive school in a traditionalist-dominated world of education reform attests to that.

It’s an approach he is now taking to his current project: revamping careers education as chief executive of the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC).

Oli de Botton The Careers Enterprise Company

The leftish streak

This way of working goes far back. As a school pupil in Year 5, de Botton remembers writing to his local MP for Finchley about the unfairness of new satellite TV firms buying up football rights. It meant some matches would be restricted to those who could afford subscriptions.

De Botton says his mother was a “social justice warrior”, instilling in him a “leftish streak”. He attended the primary school where she taught and was later headteacher.

Young Oli

His grandfather, who hailed from the East End, was an orchestral cellist and a communist who “to the end would defend the USSR”.

Meanwhile, his father’s family came to London as refugees from Egypt. His dad “never recovered” from the ordeal of fleeing their homeland in the 1950s and the racism he suffered here.

De Botton’s public speaking abilities were moulded at University College School, a private school in Hampstead (although he admits doing “homework even when it wasn’t set… probably didn’t make me the most socially successful character”).

He also spent time as a carer for a close family member, which was “incredibly character forming”.

Picking history, Latin and Greek at A-level, he said “being transported into an ancient world was just a safe and happy place for me. I wish I could hide that, but it’s true”.

He doesn’t recall what careers advice he was given, but believes that “you work out later in life why you’ve ended up taking that route”.

School encouraged him to apply to King’s College, Cambridge – a “pretty left-wing” institution – where he studied classics and found his feet leading its student union.

Balancing radicalism with boundaries

Oli and his Egyptian grandad

De Botton joined the inaugural cohort of Teach First, the education charity that recruits top graduates to teach in deprived communities, in 2003.

He taught at Albany School, (which during his time there became Oasis Academy Hadley) in Enfield, when “education was on the move”, including with the launch of the London Challenge school improvement programme.

But he found teaching English 25 hours a week “sapping and all-consuming”. He made “all sorts of shockers”, recalling telling one unruly pupil to “stay behind at the end”. When his back was turned, the boy escaped down a drainpipe.

 He learned over time to “balance radicalism” with “reinforcing boundaries”.

De Botton became head of sixth form, but felt “pretty burnt out” and left. He spent 18 months as a consultant with PwC, before embarking on international projects for charity the Education Development Trust (then called CfBT).

De Botton was seconded as an adviser to David Miliband during his failed Labour leadership campaign in 2010. He “thought really highly” of Milliband, despite admitting he was “challenging to work for because he was very smart”.

That same year, de Botton was elected as a Labour councillor for Hackney and the coalition government introduced free schools.

Despite the Labour link, he was successful in winning approval to open a new free school.

Alongside Peter Hyman – Tony Blair’s former speech writer and now a key aide to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – and former theatrical producer and kids’ TV actor Ed Fidoe, he clinched an existing school site in Stratford.

De Botton says he brought a “passion for alleviating disadvantage”, Fidoe an “innovation mindset” and Hyman “a bit of both”.

Its curriculum, which de Botton led on, incorporated lots of oracy and drama. He says: “We were trying to be the best of the new, and the best of the old.”

The founders agreed that “speaking was an underdone thing” in both the “medium, and the message that every young person has a voice to advocate for themselves”. Assemblies included pupils sat in a circle talking.

De Botton became head in 2015, the year after the school was rated ‘outstanding’.

Oli de Botton

Reinventing work experience

One of his key successes was reinventing work experience so Year 10s did a half-day each week instead of the typical “two-week hit of making the tea”.

The Careers & Enterprise Company, the quango formed in 2014 to improve careers education, recruited him to lead it in 2021.

De Botton is now implementing a new work placement model, building up exposure to careers from Year 7 onwards. While that youngest cohort might do day trips to “inspire them”, by Year 10 “you’re trying to find a real pathway”.

The proportion of schools meeting the Gatsby benchmarks – which define what good careers education looks like – has more than doubled in the past five years.

 Ninety-six per cent of secondary pupils received at least one employer encounter last year, while youngsters are twice as likely to report awareness of apprenticeships.

But since the government ditched compulsory school-age work experience in 2012, it’s been hard to wrestle that focus back. On average, schools still only meet 5.5 of the 8 Gatsby benchmarks. Fewer than one in five schools meet them all.

Last June, the CEC board raised concerns that careers education delivery could be suffering the impact of “challenges created by the current capacity within schools”, with funding squeezes and teacher shortages.

But de Botton is finding new ways to bring skills to life.

Last year, a pilot programme took 1,000 subject teachers into industry to experience the apprenticeships system. De Botton and five biology teachers were shown around cell and gene therapy company Oxford Biomedica. The teachers “saw it as valuable CPD… and took it back to their schools”.

CEC also worked with Pinewood Studios and the Academies Enterprise Trust to “reinvent” its Year 8 maths curriculum, with pupils learning about ratio and proportion by seeing how scenes were created for 2016 film Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass.

 The projects are another “demonstration of what I’ve always tried to do” in challenging the norm, de Botton adds.

Oli de Botton at the London office of The Careers Enterprise Company

Return to politics?

With a promise to become self-sufficient dropped years ago, CEC received nearly £30 million in government funding last year alone. And despite the Department for Education cutting its own cloth, CEC’s November board minutes state “good progress” on agreeing a grant for 2024-25.

The government’s 2021 skills white paper said the current mixture of organisations responsible for careers education was “confusing, fragmented and unclear”.

While schools and colleges are responsible for providing advice and guidance, overseen by CEC, responsibility also sits with the National Careers Service and the Department for Work and Pensions and its agencies.

Government has committed to updating statutory careers guidance, including mandating schools to report progress at least once a year. Its ambition is to create an “all-age careers system, unified under a single strategic framework”.

Meanwhile, Labour has promised to train more than 1,000 new careers advisers and ensure every secondary youngster gets two weeks of high-quality work experience.

Talking of Labour, de Botton recently authored a paper on ‘building a modern curriculum’ for think tank Labour Together, which includes a proposal to “broaden experiences for young people by making space for enriching activities like performance, ‘maths circles’ and independent research”.

The think tank is credited with being influential in shaping policy under Starmer. Nearly all the MPs who set it up have shadow cabinet roles, including one Bridget Phillipson.

So does this signal a return to politics? De Botton says he is “not very political these days” and isn’t advising Labour’s shadow cabinet.

Either way, he laughs nervously when I suggest dinner conversations with his wife, Amber de Botton, who was the prime minister’s director of communications for 10 months last year, must be interesting.

Meanwhile, positive momentum around School 21 seems to have waned. Last year it was judged ‘requires improvement’.

De Botton regrets they didn’t plan more for the future during that first phase. 

“We invested everything in our first cohort. Did we think about what year seven would look like? Probably not. But it comes up on you fast.”

But the Ofsted report did credit its focus on oracy for how pupils “present themselves confidently”.  And despite the rating, it’s clear oracy is here to stay.

“I feel in a small way I’ve contributed to that,” de Botton says.

Can he repeat the feat on careers education, too?

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