Through bespoke programmes of support, Bethany Ellis is supporting young people to reach their goals by making education and careers exciting again.
Not all great stories begin with a traumatic event, says Bethany Ellis; nor good ideas, she adds, walking confidently through the corridors of Falcon Grove Children Services in Wandsworth, southwest London. “It wasn’t a massively negative experience that made me want to start this”, she says. “Some really good things happened.”
One of those things was meeting Mei Lai, the Participation Manager at Wandsworth Council, when Bethany was 13 years old. Mei Lai shows us around the new space in which the pair now work together; an office space for care leavers and care experienced young people. The rooms are colourful, lined with posters and photos, and desks, sofas and equipment fill every nook and cranny. The space in which community activities are delivered is brightly lit and overlooks a broad, grassy garden. In all, it is a well-loved space and Bethany and Mei Lai share a pride in bringing people here to access support and opportunities.
“What Mei Lai is good at is encouraging the young people she works with to flourish in the ideas that they have”, says Bethany. Evidently, the support that Bethany received has enabled her ideas to not only flourish but manifest. Ten years after they first met, Bethany now works with Mei Lai to plan and deliver life skills workshops, including first aid workshops for young people that experience youth violence and cooking workshops for care leavers, as well as educational and employability workshops for a broader group of young people. She does this work collaboratively through her own organisation, Bethany Tutor Talks, which provides tutoring, mentoring and workshops with the aim of supporting young people in the long-term to achieve their personal and professional goals.
“Tutoring was a lifeline for me”, says Bethany. “I was in Year 11, I was fifteen, and I was pregnant with my son. I was smart and I had a passion for education. I still wanted to continue my education and I didn’t want to let my circumstances affect me. When I had my son, I was living with my foster carers, and I was being homeschooled and tutored from home and that made a massive difference to my confidence and reengagement into education.”
Bethany was able to reintegrate into sixth form just a year after her son was born.
“Tuition was something that gave me a sense of normality and made me feel like I’m still doing something productive. I was doing a Psychology A Level from home and when I went back to sixth form to do Psychology, Biology and Sociology, I was able to pick everything up more easily and it even gave me an advantage because I’d already done my whole first year online so it helped my grades as well as my confidence.”
Today, Bethany studies International Social and Public Policy at the London School of Economics. Her academic enquiries merged with her lived experience when she began examining educational disparities between different groups of people. It prompted her to ask a question: can we change outcomes, including poverty related outcomes, for people by increasing their enjoyment of education and employment? She also wondered if, in the absence of research about young mothers in employment and education, in particular, there was an opportunity to close the gap for people experiencing less visible educational disparities.
“I felt there was a big gap there”, she says. “It’s not something that there’s a lot of research on. I felt it was important for young people to enjoy the journey of education and reaching careers that they want.”
“I want to bring back that love for careers and educational achievement.”
While Bethany’s education had been a “lifeline”, she says that many people she has met have had less inspiring and enjoyable experiences of education.
“A lot of people I have encountered are really smart and they’ll get to their second year of university and decide they don’t want to do this anymore. I’ll ask them: ‘you don’t want to do that career anymore?’ and they’ll say, ‘no, I just don’t want to do university anymore.’ But along the way, if they had the support to keep that motivation, determination and excitement going about that career or that educational level, maybe that would have prevented them from turning back.”
Bethany considered the potential impact on her friends and community if everyone had access to the kinds of alternative educational support that she had found so transformative in her adolescence.
““I saw how it could make a big difference for other people that might be going through circumstances like bereavement, mental health problems or life just happening to them, and them feeling that the physical aspect of education including re-engaging in education isn’t working for them.”
Having delivered a number of life skills workshops at Falcon Grove, they provided Bethany with regular access to the space to trial a comprehensive programme of support with a few local young people.
““What I know is that a lot of young people are not finding their educational and career journey that fun”, says Bethany. “I want to make that better. I want to bring back that love for careers and educational achievement. I’m building a community of alternative educational support that is available for all young people in all circumstances.
“People often wonder why I called it Bethany Tutor Talks. I don’t have a massive obsession over my name!” she laughs. “It’s just, number one, a self-love thing because if you’re going to make a brand, calling it your own name says that this is basically you, you’re doing it every day and putting all the hard work into it. Second, people will look up the founder and get to know me as a person and think ‘I can relate to her because she’s also a female or a Black person or grew up in South West London like me’. Sometimes, organisations lose their human face and I want that connection to be there so if you’re going to be part of my organisation then you’re also going to know my name and face.”
With funding from Challenge and Change, Bethany is working towards incorporating a CIC and is building new partnerships within the local community so that she can maximise her reach and impact. She strives to keep Bethany Tutor Talks relevant to young people by sharing learning about their needs and aspirations with other local organisations.
“I want to have a company that always evolves in a practical way that connects with young people. Tutoring helped me but that was five years ago so things might be changing now and young people might be saying we need workshops where we can meet up and learn about careers. Or it might be that they need something like intensive tutoring two or three hours a week.”
With support from the Fund, she has grown the range of services that Bethany Tutor Talks delivers, as well as the free workshops for care leavers that she delivers at Falcon Grove Children’s Services. Most recently, Bethany has been organising trips and developing ideas for combining fun and wellbeing activities with her employability offering. Creating enjoyment, she emphasises, is still the key to successfully supporting people to reach their professional goals. One such collaboration is with a group called Makeup and Sip.
“It’s where professional beauticians come in and give a career talk to young people about different ways to upgrade your level within the beauty industry or start your own enterprise”, explains Bethany. “Everyone will have some food and do their own makeup, have a photoshoot and a competition. We’re also planning to do a spa day for young mums where they can also discuss their aspirations and get educational and career advice, as well as sharing what they struggle with and access ongoing support. It’s more about practical experiences for young mums and connecting with their children. Next summer, we’re going to organise a parents sports day and a Dads basketball game. We want to run a camp featuring tutoring for little ones where they can come into the youth club and get a few hours of tutoring in Maths and English and have something to eat.”
“This is the time to make change: make it now, today and within yourself.”
Although it’s still early days for Bethany Tutor Talks, the impact has already been significant.
“A lot of young people were telling me that, before this, things were not going good for them”, says Bethany. “They were not in education or doing anything so this is another avenue for employment and getting into something they’re passionate about.”
She adds that funding from Challenge and Change has greatly benefited her as well as her community.
“When you’re a young person, you’re just trying to make it in this life as well. You want to do something good but it’s not always financially viable. I have a career myself and I’m walking on that same journey with a lot of the young people I’m trying to help. You want to make sure when you’re doing these things that you can sustain yourself. I think that’s why funding young people is really important.
Funding gave me two things: a lot of freedom and confidence. I have my own ground to stand on because of this funding. It has really enabled me to legitimise my idea.
“I’m a Mum and I have love for the future. Yes, I am a young person as well, but I also am interested in and want to focus on the future of society. That’s the good thing about Blagrave. You’re looking from within yourself and saying, I want to make a change. I’m not going to shout and scream and go to whoever else to make these changes. I’m doing it from me and from myself. This is the time to make change: make it now, today and within yourself.”
The Challenge and Change Fund is designed by young changemakers for young changemakers. It funds young people directly, supporting them to create the change they want to see. It prioritises young people who are emergent and have lived experience of the injustices they are trying to change, supporting youth led collectives, social enterprises and CICs across England. You can read more about Challenge and Change here.