Bright Sparks | Employability and Skills Consultancy 2016-10-12T11:00:55+00:00

Welcome to “Bright Sparks”. We are a consultancy of like-minded Associates working in the employability, skills and wider sectors. We work with organisations of any size across the private, voluntary and public sector.

We help organisations deliver more effectively, promote themselves and expand their businesses. No project is too small for us to tackle.

At Bright Sparks we are dedicated to keeping things REAL.

Latest Posts

I want to break free!

April 4th, 2016|0 Comments

If, like me,  you have worked for some time in the Education, Employment and Skills sector you’ll appreciate the frustration I feel when I see wheels being reinvented (again) and lessons failing to be learned (or forgotten) from past experience and practice.  In circumstances where the funding to support interventions is becoming increasingly difficult to attract my grievance is getting incrementally greater!  We talk about “innovation” but we can rarely define what we mean. We are often wasting limited resources on activities that aren’t evidenced to work, don’t have sufficient impact and might even be doing more harm than good.  The flip side of this is that good stuff is going on but we don’t have a sufficiently robust mechanism to know where this is, what this is and how best to share it.

It’s time for change and there are some green shoots emerging to suggest that, at last, the nettle is being grasped. The Learning and Work Institute, Nesta, DWP and the Cabinet Office appear to be making some progress towards creating an “evidence centre” of research for the sector (much like NICE in the medical context) and the Institute of Employability Professionals (IEP) has recently launched its Knowledge Bank, encouraging its members to share best practice.    The new FE News site is all about enabling the sector to come together, share positively and spot innovation.  This is all good progress and to be encouraged.

However, access to knowledge isn’t fairly available or accessible:

If you represent a prime provider (at a relatively senior level)  your access to knowledge about “what works” for our customers is much easier to access than if you are a small community based charity or social enterprise.  You will probably be a member of ERSA or AELP or both  and benefit from their exceptionally valuable updates, you will be a regular attendee at conferences, you’ll have a ready-made network of peers to bounce your ideas off and DWP/BIS may invite you to participate in working parties to co-design provision.

If you are a practitioner, working with our beneficiaries “at the chalk face”, your opportunities to share the things that work and new ideas are more limited. If you aren’t yet a member of the IEP I highly recommend that you join.  A membership fee of £40 – £70 per annum (tax deductible) is money  very well spent on professional development.  See

If you are a grass roots “micro” provider the chances are that you haven’t heard of AELP, ERSA, IEP or any other membership or interest group and if you have you probably  can’t afford the membership fees and joining costs of the conferences and events where knowledge is shared and new ideas discussed.

I am a founder director and one-time Chair of both ERSA and the IEP and until recently a long-time director of Inclusion and it saddens me that, despite much effort and the best of intentions, the delivery and dissemination  of knowledge across our sectors remains so exclusive to those who can afford to receive it.

The times are ripe for change. As we enter in to the new waters of the Work and Health Programme, and providers have no alternative but to  work with the customers who are the most marginalised and distanced from work, it will become increasingly (commercially) essential for “prime” providers to engage with the community-based organisations who know where these beneficiaries live, the challenges they face and already work across the spectrum of interventions that ultimately support them getting in to sustained work.

These community organisations need their own mechanism to gain visibility to the primes, to share their own experience and expertise, learn from others and to have their own access to professional development and networking opportunities. In this way we think the process of inclusion for individuals, families and communities will be assisted and speeded up. Responding to this need my colleague Tracy Fishwick and I have established  WhatWorksInclusion.

In brief. WhatWorksInclusion is  a membership “hub” based around a website that will enable small organisations who lack resources to access, shape and share best practice and become a collaboration of like-minded operationally-active organisations and individuals.  Replication and scaling of provision will be enabled by the sharing of what is working well (and what is less effective) in their specialism through a collection of evaluations, reports, evidence and latest thinking available in an accessible “inclusive” format.  The website will be supplemented by learning and sharing opportunities – ranging from local debates, webinars, round tables, “pop-up” events and conferences – always with the emphasis on relevance, affordability and accessibility .

We are currently moving in to the design stage of the project working with community-based charities and social enterprises as Design Partners – co-designing the provision to ensure we create a resource that has the impact and outcomes we are aiming for.

We don’t see any of the aforementioned knowledge sharing initiatives as mutually exclusive.  Ultimately we should all be working together, in a strategic way, to ensure that our entire  workforce across the wider education, skills and employability sector has the very best resources and support to hand, in whatever way it works with jobseekers, of whatever age or demographic, through which ever programme, and however distanced its customers are from work.

To quote Kofi Annan:

“Knowledge is power.  Information is liberating.  Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

Let’s take that to heart, share the knowledge and  break free….!


Employability and Social Enterprises – What works?

March 7th, 2016|0 Comments

Fran Parry of Bright Sparks and Tracy Fishwick of Transform Lives Company  have come together to found the “WhatWorksInclusion” employability hub. As part of our preliminary research we were pleased to facilitate an event hosted recently by the grant agency UnLtd which invited social entrepreneurs and practitioners working in the employability sector to come together and discuss employability-related challenges and solutions. Social entrepreneurs from across diverse settings, but all working with unemployed people, shared their experiences and learned from each other

We recognised that enterprises working to improve employment opportunities, particularly for marginalised groups and those who have difficulty accessing employment tools and support, felt that there were no clear guidelines or set frameworks in place to help them discern and deliver best practices.

Here is rundown of the key points we took from the day:

Emerging Themes

  • All the social enterprises (including those who regarded themselves as purely “entrepreneurial”) agreed on key things that an employability element in their programme included:
    • “Real interactions” with employers (work tasters, mock interviews, opportunities to chat informally with employers; site visits; trade mentors; volunteering);
    • vocational skills delivery (preferably accredited and transferable); providing support to produce professional CVs and high impact job search;
    • quality time spent with beneficiaries understanding their needs and building a programme holistically around this (its more than tokenistic “personalisation”);
    • functional skills delivery;
    • soft skills including an understanding that in the words of one delegate “It’s hard to work for £5 an hour but there are other benefits to it beyond the job”.
  • Some participants felt uncomfortable talking about “employability” because they regarded their beneficiaries as very far away from being employment ready. We agreed that the employability pathway for each individual is a unique one.  Some may make progress towards employment but never get there. Whilst “employment” per se may not be the objective of your programme, evidence of progress in this direction is a good thing.
  • Some social enterprises are using diagnostic tools and are able to evidence the progress of their beneficiaries. Others could see there was progress and that the programme activity was having a positive impact, but were not able to evidence it.
  • All the social enterprises were able to describe what their enterprise did, but not all were able to articulate and evidence their outcomes in terms that funders (as well as investors) would understand such as: increased confidence and motivation of beneficiaries; good sustained jobs; better pay; increased skills (soft and functional); better mental and physical wellbeing etc. Evidencing impact is essential when selling in the employment/employability sector as social enterprises largely sell ‘outcomes’. More support and guidance in this area would be welcomed by social enterprises.

Key takeaways, solutions and aims:

  • Building soft skills like self-confidence is undervalued and needs to be prioritised by those working in employability
  • Interview workshops to help young people get employment should be more accessible
  • Greater help with CVs and applications should be made available to those who would otherwise have trouble accessing it
  • In person and online training courses need to be more easily accessed by job seekers
  • Finding better ways to give job seekers a vocational skill to leave with something accredited
  • Mentoring with an employer in the real world is very effective and a formalised method to carry this out should be implemented
  • Organise more careers assemblies to raise awareness of employers
  • Enabling employers to get into schools and understand how to best approach leavers first-hand would be invaluable
  • Generate greater awareness of pathways/ alternative routes
  • Improve archiving outcomes by stealth and functional skills

In 2016 the Big Venture Challenge will support social entrepreneurs working within the Education, Training, and Skills sectors. UnLtd will continue to develop a programme of support for entrepreneurs working in this field and to share their stories. For further information see

We are continuing to develop the “WhatWorksInclusion” hub.  Watch this space….

I thought the Evaluation and Best Practice Report undertaken for the Digital Youth Academy Young Web Builders programme by Bright Sparks was very good, thoughtful, honest and helpful. The recommendations were well argued and practical and will undoubtedly assist future practice.
Janette Faherty OBE | Chair, DYA
Fran is a great partner and an exceptional leader. She is thought provoking, challenging and supportive and our sector is the better for her contribution. I happily recommend Bright Sparks.
Stuart Knowles | Citizen Services, Serco
Fran shows dedication to a project, gives wise advice and has an approachable style. She balances rigour with good humour and is absolutely committed to fairness and inclusion.
Tom Bulman | Director, WorkTree