Spiral Skills coming full circle on the Thrive accelerator

Ruth Coustick-Deal

Communications Manager

7th November 2019



Joel Balkwill was working as an English teacher with pupils in lower sets, and frustrated that the traditional education path – from GCES, to A Levels, to University - was where all the support for young people was offered. The evidence is all there, and publicly understood, that this set linear path doesn’t work for everyone, yet there was still nothing provided for people whose need was greatest.

When two pupils at his school were murdered in Elephant and Castle, it was a moment for change for Joel. “I couldn’t keep teaching Macbeth, hoping it would save these people from terrible life consequences”.

Not knowing what to aim for can have a big impact on a young person’s self-esteem. Emma's involvement was born out of her passion to help young people realise confidence isn't something your born with, but something you can grow over time through challenging yourself.

Ben Kahn experienced the challenges young people were facing through his years as a youth worker and then in higher education outreach.

Emma, Ben, Joel, came together as co-founding team and asked themselves, “what can be done to change these outcomes?”

They wanted to create a more holistic, human-centred and practical approach to careers education. From this Spiral Skills was born, a venture with the vision to ensure that, “those on the fringes of mainstream education do not end up on the fringes of society.” 

In order to practically make this dream possible they come into schools to create and run “immersive and fun career interventions” (programmes, events and festivals) to specific groups of young people. These interventions contain a rich mixture of practical skills training, bespoke career advice, introductions to aspirational mentors and professionals, and direct access to further training and employment opportunities. There is a focus on personal development, so young people can set goals and plan the steps they will make to reach them. Specifically, their intervention is designed to make an impact on young people’s skills, attitudes, and their aspirations.

When it comes to improving employability, many schools and colleges are a little cynical about spending, believing they already have it covered, or that all their students will get is basic cv advice. Working with schools as a social purpose business always had this challenge, given low public education budgets. In the past 7 years, education funding has fallen by 25%. 

But these schools and colleges are quickly impressed by the incredible work that Spiral Skills is able to do.  

The young people they work with have often, “had 7 or more years in the education system feeling lesser than others... some of them haven’t even been asked to talk in a classroom through the whole of their career in school.” 

Pupils go from that point to believing that it is possible for them to be successful. From thinking that they may never work, or only in something unfulfilling, to that they can do a “well respected challenging job that matches their interests.” 

It’s not just their confidence that changes, it’s real practical skills in teamwork and communication too.  

Once the schools see what Spiral Skills are able to achieve, “some of them are spending 1 times, or 2 times even, of what they had in their budget”.  

They mainly work with young people in cities, learning disabilities, those with learning challenges in schools, and those most at risk of exclusion. They don’t just deliver in schools, working in challenging environments is often where they can make the most impact – pupil referral units, schools with those most at risk of exclusion and youth centres in high deprivation areas. 

For ventures like Spiral Skills, who work on routes to employment, Thrive, UnLtd’s social business accelerator, offers truly specialist support. It puts them in a position to take that transformative impact to more people, and places.  

Joel described the bespoke accelerator as “an environment built for us”, introducing them to the right kind of investors, who are already interested in backing work in this sector. They received access to pro bono support, and a highly skilled Venture Manager. Through our partnership with UBS, they were able to get further business advice and training.  

Receiving this scaling-up support was very much coming full circle for the social entrepreneurs - it was £5k from UnLtd that helped them get off the ground. Joel, Emma and Ben view their first grant as the “touch paper that got us started,” which has always given them a bond with us.  

They knew that they wanted to double the size of the team at Spiral Skills this year, but that type of rapid expansion is always challenging for a business. That’s why they worked with us to get the right policies in place to streamline their delivery processes. 

 Knowing that we were backing them, made them feel more confident to deliver their support to others.  

Looking back, it really contrasts with experiences they had with other accelerators out there, giving them maximum progress to get ready for investment, with minimum time away from the business.

As Joel put it, 

“If you are worried about it being another thing that hooks you up with 25 mentors, that’s not what is going to happen. It’s a really targeted programme, that gives you expert advice and will make sure you do things that will really improve the efficiency of your business.” 

As a result of their recent growth, from June to July 2019 they worked with 200 young people, for 20 hours each, across five programmes.  In the whole of the previous year, they had supported a total of 250 young people in programmes. 

Since their establishment in 2015 or their first £5k funding from UnLtd, Spiral have gone on to raise £650,000 to support over 3500 young people facing barriers to employment with the help of over 1000 volunteer professionals and opportunity partners.

The next step for Joel, Emma and Ben and their growing team, is addressing the challenges of measuring the long-term outcomes and benefits of working with young people. It is important to understand what the difference these interventions will have over a lifetime so they can improve their offer now. But the stories from their workshop attendees they’ve already had certainly paint a picture of real transformation.

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