Oli de Botton, The Careers & Enterprise Company

On a quest to reinvent work experience and champion oracy

High quality classroom discussion helps students grapple with big ideas

A champion of oracy in schools and colleges, Careers & Enterprise Company chief Oli de Botton tells of his battle to improve work experience for young people

As well as leading national careers education as chief executive of the Careers & Enterprise Company, Oli de Botton’s work championing oracy skills appears to be paying dividends. The Labour Party last year talked about oracy as one of its education priorities.

Oracy, a term coined in the 1960s, fell out of favour after a renaissance in the 1980s, with the spotlight shifting to reading and phonics. As curriculum lead and later head of School 21, a free school launched in 2012, de Botton helped revive it by putting speaking skills at the heart of its curriculum. 

Three years later, its founders (all accomplished orators themselves) – De Botton, Peter Hyman (Tony Blair’s former speechwriter and now senior aide to Sir Keir Starmer) and ex-theatrical producer Ed Fidoe, formed the charity Voice 21 to boost oral skills among disadvantaged young people. 

It’s now hosting the new Commission on the Future of Oracy Education, chaired by former Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton.

Oli de Botton at The Careers Enterprise Companys offices in London

Diverse roots

De Botton’s public speaking abilities were moulded through independent schooling and life at Cambridge University. This gives him an air of privilege which is somewhat deceiving. His parents, who separated when he was two, were both Jewish and from very different backgrounds.

His maternal grandfather, who hailed from the East End, was an orchestral cellist and working-class communist. 

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.

As a child, de Botton’s paternal grandfather, a former Egyptian cricket team captain, would “open a map of the world” and “go on a journey” with him, exploring exotic lands. 

Oli with his paternal Egyptian grandfather

The leftish streak

His grandfathers both gave de Botton a “vibrant sense of world history” and appreciation for musical education. 

In a recent paper for Labour Together he called for making “music as important as geography”, and incorporating local history into broader school curriculums. 

De Botton’s mother was a “social justice warrior” who raised him and his sister as a single mum. He attended the primary school where she taught. 

She instilled in her son a “leftish streak”, and a love of drama.

De Botton’s political leanings surfaced when, in Year 5, he was incensed by the unfairness of new satellite TV companies being allowed to buy up footballing rights, restricting some matches to those who could afford subscriptions. He wrote to his local Finchley MP, Hartley Booth, and his campaign featured in the local rag. 

Oli as a boy

Hiding in an ancient world

While some of de Botton’s work for the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) involves matching young people with the skills the economy needs, the subjects he picked for A-level (history, Latin and Greek) and his degree (classics) were not high on the nation’s skills priority list. 

De Botton 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”.

His school encouraged him to apply to King’s College, Cambridge – a “pretty left wing” institution. “They had worked me out”.

He “found his feet” socially there. He led the students’ union and campaigned on university access for under-represented groups.

It was a proud moment for de Botton’s paternal grandfather, who at the same age had been forbidden by his father from accepting an Oxford scholarship, instead having to work in the family business. 

Trainee shockers

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

De Botton taught at Albany School in Enfield (which during his time there became Oasis Academy Hadley), at a time when “education was on the move”, with the launch of the London Challenge school improvement programme and the National Literacy Strategy.

But he found teaching English 25 hours a week “sapping and all-consuming” and made “all sorts of shockers” as a trainee. 

De Botton taught A-level politics during the 2004 US election. His class preferred speeches by George W Bush to John Kerry’s, and de Botton “understood why”. “He wasn’t speaking jargon. I learnt from that.”

De Botton was appointed head of sixth form but felt “pretty burnt out”. 

He left and spent 18 months as a consultant for PwC, then embarked on a series of international projects for the education charity now known as the Education Development Trust (then CfBT). 

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

Oli de Botton

School ‘1921’

That same year, de Botton was elected as a Labour councillor for Hackney, and the coalition government introduced free schools. De Botton, Hyman and Fidoe “managed to navigate some of the politics” around the movement to clinch an existing school site in Stratford.

De Botton brought a “passion for alleviating disadvantage”, Fidoe (who as a child starred in kids TV series Woof) an “innovation mindset” and Hyman “a bit of both”. 

The trio had “really good debates about how radical to be”. 

De Botton now questions whether the name School 21 – which they used with the strapline, ‘preparing children for the 21st century’ – fitted with their objectives. He can appreciate why a DfE official commented during a visit that they “should’ve called it School 1921”. 

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

In 2014, School 21 was rated outstanding by Ofsted. De Botton became head the following year, and he, Fidoe and Hyman founded Voice 21 to promote oracy further.

Oli de Botton

Reinventing work experience

De Botton made School 21 more future focused by “reinventing work experience” from a typically “two-week hit of making the tea” to half a day a week out in industry for Year 10s.

De Botton’s work caught the eye of the Careers & Enterprise Company, the quango formed in 2014 to improve careers education, which recruited him to lead it in 2021.

The government ditched compulsory school-age work experience in 2012, and a report this month by Speakers for Schools found only half of state school students get any. This is partly because industry placements are a key component of new T Level courses, which means employers are facing huge demand to facilitate them.

But de Botton points out that schools and colleges are reporting progress across the eight Gatsby benchmarks that are used as a framework for career education.

FE Week profile interviewees often recount having had terrible careers advice when they were at school. But de Botton claims that’s no longer the experience for most young people, and the “national discourse” has changed around careers guidance. Around 96 per cent of students received at least one employer encounter last year. Some of the strongest performance is in disadvantaged areas.

He says the Gatsby benchmarks, which were drawn up in 2013, are now “quite well embedded” in schools and colleges. 

Oli de Botton

Careers reforms

CEC was initially intended to become self-sustaining, but in 2023 received £29.3 million in government funding, up from £23.8 million in 2022. That’s on top of £2.5 million last year from JP Morgan and further funding from the Salesforce Foundation for boosting disadvantaged young people’s take-up of digital apprenticeships.

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.

Both the government and the Labour party are eyeing reform of the system, which an education committee report last year criticised as “confusing, fragmented and unclear”. 

Devolution is making matters more complex.

Together with partners, CEC runs 44 regional career hubs, covering 92 per cent of schools and colleges and bringing them together with employers and apprenticeship providers. They’re often co-funded by combined authorities in devolved areas. 

New county deals are putting more power over the skills agenda in the hands of local government partners. 

CEC “tries to match” its priorities from DfE with local skills priorities. This is “important because young people need to know what the local jobs are. Digital is fastest growing in Manchester City region for example, so it’s important those young people have access to those skills.”

Oli de Botton

Siloed sectors

De Botton’s own experience going from school to university to a schools-related career, meant that he “didn’t always understand” the purpose of apprenticeships. But he has learnt at CEC that degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications are “incredible”, and that colleges are “extraordinary institutions”.

He praises Walsall College, which he recently visited, for its integrated local careers hub which includes support for adults, in an office which acts as a “beacon in the town”.

He believes, however, that schools, colleges and training providers are “siloed” and “sometimes talk past each other”. 

To break down barriers, CEC held an event with Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (which represents academies nationally), David Hughes from the Association of Colleges, and representatives from the Association of Employment and Learning Providers. 

“That sort of thing doesn’t often happen” de Botton said.

Today’s politics

De Botton claims to be “not very political these days”. 

However, his wife, Amber de Botton, was the Prime Minister’s director of communications for ten months until August 2023. De Botton laughs nervously when I suggest they must have had some interesting dinner conversations. 

They met when Amber, formerly a journalist (she later rose to head of UK news at ITV News) interviewed him for a magazine (Total Politics) for an article about “up-and-coming politicians”. She wrote “very nicely” about him and they stayed in touch.

Meanwhile, de Botton’s own political legacy might just end up being oracy. 

He believes it has a big role to play in colleges, as “high quality classroom discussion helps [students] grapple with big ideas”.

Our recent investigation found a perception among college support staff that  young people are becoming increasingly disengaged in education. De Botton believes “hearing from young people” could be “crucial to making things better”.

“The AI revolution will require young people to be able to critically engage with the technology properly, so the discursive element of education seems to be central.” 

De Botton’s proudest career moment was during a recent primary school parent’s evening, when he was told his son’s class would study oracy this term. 

De Botton said he “welled up”. “Gosh, this is actually happening,” he thought. “I feel in a small way, I’ve contributed to that.”

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