Northumbrian Water provides water and waste water services. It operates across the North East of England and trades as Essex and Suffolk Water in the East of England. Sophie Carvin has worked at Northumbrian Water for 11 years, and in July 2018 she took on the role of Northumbrian Water Group Academy Manager. Sophie is also an Enterprise Adviser for The Careers & Enterprise Company at a special school in County Durham.
SOPHIE CARVIN, MANAGER OF THE NORTHUMBRIAN WATER GROUP ACADEMY
Our leadership recognises that diversity is good for our business. We need to innovate to keep the business efficient and effective and we need a diversity of thought to achieve that.
We talk about diversity as being ‘different like me’. Our customers are diverse – we provide a service to everyone who lives in our operating area, whatever their background or personal characteristics. So it’s logical that we should build on our previous work to encourage people from many different backgrounds to apply to work with us, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
We are a business with low turnover and long service. As an organisation, we are used to working with people who are broadly similar to us. How we go about our business is very important – we have a strong set of values and behaviours. However, it has the potential to make us less inclusive, which is something I was keen to address.
As part of the outreach element of my role, I requested to become an Enterprise Adviser working with a special school. It was an opportunity to learn more about what special schools need from an employer, what works and what doesn’t. I also wanted to learn how to achieve better long-term outcomes when we welcome those with different needs into our workplace.
I was paired with a community special school in County Durham, with over 250 students aged 11–19. I worked with the creative and enthusiastic assistant headteacher to see how we could incorporate Benchmark 5: Encounters with Employers and Employees, and Benchmark 6: Experiences of Workplaces, into the fabric of the school. A highlight of the partnership was their Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) week. The assistant headteacher came up with the idea of using a ‘crime scene investigation’ activity as a vehicle for developing STEM skills. The manager of one of Northumbrian Water’s sewage treatment works hosted the event, and their team shared what their jobs entailed as they were interviewed by the students as part of the investigation.
Other activities included mock interview sessions for students; an interactive session introducing the students to what Northumbrian Water does; putting interested students in touch with technical teams; and sharing relevant press releases and materials.
As part of our engagement with the school, we recently took on a student who was disengaged with school for a period of work experience. Despite having discussions about the student’s capabilities, he unfortunately came into a role that wasn’t appropriate, and therefore we were unable to provide the day-to-day support that he needed. Through this experience we learnt that, despite best intentions, it can sometimes feel like schools and employers are talking a different language, even though we are using the same words.
It was the first time we had run a period of work experience with a special school, and the company and I learnt a lot from this experience – we are always learning and striving to improve our business activities, and our work with schools is no different. It has given me a strong incentive to improve our communication and planning, ensuring that we ask the right questions at the outset. This will help us to provide the best conditions for learning and make sure we are boosting the young person’s pride and self-esteem. It will also help us internally to make sure everyone across the business is able to carve out time within their busy day jobs to support the students.
We, along with many other businesses, have a social responsibility to help our communities. But on top of that we have strong ethical values and want to actively engage with schools. We’re therefore always open to different initiatives that can help us make a positive difference to young people and the wider community.