Virtual Work Experience With Speakers For Schools

  • Photo Abigail Simmons
  • Abigail Simmons


I joined IEMA in February and one of my early introductions was with Speakers for Schools, a charity set up by ITV’s Robert Peston. The charity’s aim is to give state educated children ‘access to prestigious networks’ and offer opportunities that usually went with attending a fee paying school. For example, having high profile speakers at schools, running networking or work experiences that weren’t always accessible if they didn’t have the right connections. I had worked with the charity in my former role as a BBC producer and worked on an educational outreach project too, going into schools and sharing my journalism knowledge with students, so I was curious to find out exactly how we would run a virtual work experience week, in a very uncertain year. I knew that there was quite a bit of burnout from online events and my own children had attended online school on Teams, they couldn’t wait to return to face to face school.

A lot of the students who are encouraged to attend Speakers for Schools events are on free school meals, have English as a second language or other parameters that mean they might not always take on new opportunities. We were also launching our Diverse Sustainability Initiative at IEMA, to encourage more Black, Asian and minority ethnic people into the profession, so offering a work experience placement to students sounded ideal.

We agreed to host a virtual work experience programme for 30 students and a ‘Live Discovery Workshop’, a livestream to schools who had students that might be interested in applying. Bearing in mind there are only 30 members of staff at IEMA, I admit to being sceptical about how I could run it, having only taken part in face to face sessions previously and potentially doubling the size of IEMA in one week! Having decided on timings for the day – with those crucial screen breaks – I set about trying to fill my IEMA Vwex timetable. With the help of Tim Farmer, our Digital Media Officer, Alan Darby, our Corporate Partnerships Manager, Kirsty Peck and Mariabelen from the marketing team, a plan began to form. We would intersperse talks and presentations with ‘soft skills’ headed up by Megan Lui, Memberships Manager and talks from air pollution by Julia Ambrose to marketing skills with Lisa Pool. But we didn’t stop there. What a fantastic opportunity to engage our corporate partners, with Alan setting up meetings with both Lego and Siemens Energy to present interactive sessions on virtual Lego, messages to world leaders at COP26, carbon and hydrogen! I certainly feel like I learnt a lot that week. From appearances by our CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE, Deputy CEO Martin Baxter and Head of Policy Ben Goodwin, to inspirational talks from graduate IEMA member Mohammed Mohamoud and our policy partners, we packed a lot into a week for the students. I wanted them to feel they had access to people they wouldn’t normally be able to meet. We even had a ‘Question Time’ style hour with trainer Ed Brown.

As my background is in journalism, I also asked environment journalist Madeleine Cuff from the i newspaper, to talk to the students about her route into journalism, with a talk from our very own press adviser Andre Farrar. I wanted the students to take away that there are many routes into environment and sustainability and that they as young people have a lot to offer. This they demonstrated when looking at our social media channels and advising us on content, hashtags and our first ever IEMA Tiktok, apparently to be fronted by me. Never have I felt so old!

I had a few sleepless nights about the week: would it work, would the students engage, more importantly, would they actually take away something useful to help them navigate their next stages? For the first 3 days, students kept cameras off and used the chat function in google classroom – fair enough, I’m not a teacher and I’m not going to insist they show their faces but I did my best to ‘compere’ the week to keep them engaged. I’m pleased to say it was a complete success, students turned cameras on by the end of the week, they engaged, debated, put together amazing virtual whiteboards of their thoughts, learnings and ideas and all the team involved felt energized to be part of the week. Finally, I’d just like to thank everyone who took part in this as we carried on in our IEMA roles too! If we’ve inspired one student to pursue an interest in the environment and sustainability, then that’s worth all the work and effort we put in.