Federation Diversity Spotlight: 1. Heather McRae Heather MacRae on how The Ideas Foundation is shaping the future 

October 30, 2020

In the very first of our Diversity & Inclusion Spotlight series, we talk to Heather MacRae who, amongst other things, is Chief Executive at The Ideas Foundation. The Ideas Foundation is a charity built on the ethos that ‘the brightest ideas don’t come from one place’, educating a new creative class and broadening access to the creative industries. The Ideas Foundation seeks to grow talent through breaking down lacklustre and formulaic curriculums, working with agencies such as Nike, Canon and McCann to nurture the new generation, as well as Ogilvy and Mather who give charity its industry home.  

Fed: Tell us more about The Ideas Foundation and how you came to be involved in the charity…

Heather: The charity has been going for nearly 20 years and was founded by a guy called Robin Wright . Robin is one of those old school creatives, famous for campaigns like The Future is Orange, 118118 and Weetabix Week. He is also the founder of an agency called Wight Collins Rutherford Scott, which has now become The Engine Group. I met Robin when I was working in Hackney, which at that point wasn’t really a creative hotspot but was a failing education authority. Robin came into the authority and said how we really needed to have more diversity within the creatives industries and how they wanted to work with Hackney to look at how young people could be encouraged to develop creative thinking, creative skills and hopefully get into the industry. 

From that encounter, we devised The Ideas Foundation. It started in Hackney, then moved across other boroughs in London and now we’re very active in the North West, building onto the successful creative sector in Manchester, around MediaCity. We’re also doing a lot of work in the Yorkshire area with Burberry. Our focus is really encouraging young people from all walks of life to see themselves as creatives and see that there can be a future for them in the creative industries. It’s not just BAME either, we’re also working with students from white, working class backgrounds in West Cumbria and North Yorkshire, who perhaps wouldn’t necessarily think about a creative career. 

Ideas Foundation

Fed: How is the charity hoping to further the shape the engagement of young people moving forward?

Heather: We’ve tended to do a lot of face-to-face work in the past, working through the curriculum. We have a big partnership with the National Association for Teaching English, where we’re trying to look at bringing more creative and critical thinking into the English curriculum using fabulous adverts from Nike, Adam & Eve (who are responsible for the John Lewis adverts) and helping young people see the storytelling and the art of how pictures and words work together. We also work with BTEC Level 3 creative and media, working through the curriculum areas where we can.

We offer out of school experiences too so, for example, next week we’re running a virtual workshop with Engine and then we’ll be doing some virtual workshops teaching about how to create TikTok content. We now offer all of our resources online through our website, so we’ve got a whole range of resources that can be used by teachers or accessed by young people. We’ve got a whole toolkit made with Canon on there about how to create digital stories. We were beginning to do develop more virtual resources before COVID but it has certainly accelerated it. 

Fed: Do you think virtual work experiences and digital resources are going to be more prevalent now?

Heather: I think they’re going to have to be. In most of the agencies that we’re working with, nobody is going into the office but the companies are all really well situated to be working from home. Because they’re so tech-savvy, they’ve been able to adapt really easily to this new digital world. They’re being agile and they’re doing things differently and we’re modelling that when we’re doing our own digital experiences; kids are collaborating virtually in breakout rooms, working with students all over the country. It has actually increased the diversity and range of people taking part in those programmes. 

We’re also finding that some of the quieter, less confident creatives are enjoying the pace and invisibility that an online environment gives them. Some of the students we work with, for example, are dyslexic and really welcome the chance to have different ways of communicating.  We’re finding that they’re coming up trumps in this new digital world. I think there is now going to be a much more blended learning experience as well as a blended working experience. Being able to access employment virtually is a real equaliser. 

Fed: What is The Ideas Foundation doing to make access to industry more inclusive for diverse talent?

Heather: The key thing is obviously using the digital platforms that we’re working on and we’ve got amazing role models that we’re working with, including some people we’ve known since they were teenagers. We’re able to actually show students who come from less privileged backgrounds others who have made it into the industry. It’s all about supporting the next generation and passing back. That’s really powerful. 

Ideas Foundation

Fed: What is your proudest moment so far, and what is the most rewarding thing about what you do?

Heather: My proudest moment would have to be winning the Majors UK Diversity Award and Creative Floor Awards and I guess the most rewarding moment for me though is when students come back to me and say I’m now working in the sector and what can I do to give back. I think also having some of the young people now on our advisory board is probably one of the proudest moments. Also, seeing some of the student work winning awards and seeing the students chairing meetings at Number 11 Downing Street, talking about our charity and what we do. We did a big event on mental health with McCann and that student work actually helped win a Guinness World Record! There are lots of really extraordinary moments which make you feel proud to have been part of them; life-changing moments for students. 

Fed: How do you hope to see school and college curriculums evolve over the next decade?

Heather: What I would love to see is much more project-based learning and schools taking on briefs that actually bring together different subjects. It would be great to see the English faculty working with creatives and working with scientists. On that level, I would love to see much fewer silos in the curriculum. I’d like to see much more employer engagement whereby employers actually go into schools and colleges, supporting with expertise and teacher training and virtual placements. The range of opportunities is changing so quickly and teachers need more support if  they’re going to be able to stay up to date. 

What I would also like to see is a clearer pathway into the sector. If you look at things like engineering or law, you’ve got every clear steps into that career pathway. I think in the creative industries it’s still very chaotic. There are lots of informal routes in that aren’t very well known so I’d like there to be much more clarity and transparency around the ways in to the industries. 

Ideas Foundation

Fed: If you could go back and offer teenage you some careers advice, what would it be?

Heather: At the moment, there aren’t enough tools to help people explore the different careers so the advice that I would give now would be to do something called the Sparketype assessment. It’s something that has been development by Jonathan Fields at The Good Life Project and is a really helpful way to explore what sparks your interest and gives you joy. That wasn’t available when I was making my career choices but if I was to go back, I would have liked to have had access to a tool like that, that would have opened up the idea that you can have more than one skillset and that you can combine those skills in different contexts. You can be creative in a science context and you can still be scientific in a creative context. I thinking having some sort of independent assessment tools helps you actually think about where your skills and potential lie. 

Ideas Foundation

To find out more about The Ideas Foundation and the wonderful work they do, head to www.ideasfoundation.org.uk

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