Edge Foundation blog by Marcel Cianter, Director of Employer Partnerships at Aspirations Academies Trust.   

The Aspirations Employability Diploma trains students at Aspirations Academies in competencies such as problem solving and cross-cultural awareness.

“I’ve always been unsure about the term ‘soft skills’. Labelling vital competencies like problem solving, agility and cross-cultural awareness as ‘soft’ undermines their importance. Instead, I call them ‘power skills’, since they are transferable to any job. As Director of Employer Partnerships at Aspirations Academies Trust, I’m dedicated to developing these types of skills in young people.

Aspirations Academies takes various approaches to real world learning. A key one is our post-16 Aspirations Employability Diploma (AED). This is unique to Aspirations and while I have come across careers programmes at other MATs, I am not aware of any having anything like the AED.

The AED is a holistic and challenging professional development qualification. The emphasis is not on telling young people what to do with their lives, but ensuring they leave school with the ability to competently and confidently progress in life, whatever they choose to go on to do – whether that’s university, the workplace, an apprenticeship, or a gap year.

The AED is compulsory, aimed at years 12 and 13 and requires four hours of weekly study alongside traditional subjects.

Our AED roadmap broadly outlines the skills students will develop, exploring where they’re heading, what their goals are, and what traits they will cultivate. Unlike many qualifications, though, the diploma is built on real world activities. Students undertake four employer projects, three of which offer windows into the largest employment sectors: engineering, health and medicine, and education and training. The final ‘showcase’ project encourages students to explore a topic of their choice.

The diploma builds the skills, competencies and vocabulary that students need to succeed in professional settings in today’s 21st century world. This includes everything from email writing to verbal communication. Each project puts these skills into action through students working with their peers, colleagues and mentors. The holistic nature of the programme is also designed to help them understand their place in the world, while developing their broader cultural understanding.

None of this could be possible without our employer partners. Even the assessment is carried out by an external Employer Advisory Board, rather than teachers.

Students submit a personal statement of their achievements alongside a portfolio of supporting evidence. They must then defend this in a viva-style interview with two employers, who will decide if they demonstrate the basic professional skills needed for an entry-level role.

Students can receive Bronze, Silver or Gold awards, with the possibility of Platinum for those who progress in year 13. They can also fail, of course. Naturally, this is not something we want to see. But it’s important that the diploma has high stakes.

Marcel Cianter, Director of Employer Partnerships at Aspirations Academies Trust

In year 13, students can also compete for a place on our Aspirations Scholarship Scheme. This is a top-quality, well-paid, four-week work placement in their chosen sector. I’m particularly proud of this aspect of the programme, which helps students get their foot in the door and put their skills into practice. It also builds the AED’s currency with employers, giving them an opportunity to scout talent and build rapport with potential future employees.