Guest slot 6 - Colin Ferguson, Altitude Foundation
Today I feature a local charity in the guest slot on my blog, and one very close to my heart. The Altitude Foundation was set up in 2019 to support social mobility in the North East, and help disadvantaged young people with a passion for technology to access careers in the industry. Altitude sits at the heart of the leading international tech firm, Scott Logic. Born in Newcastle, but now with offices across the UK and Europe, Altitude spearheads Scott Logic’s ambition to drive social good, and to inspire and employ young talent across the North East. I’m particularly delighted to welcome Altitude today, as I am proud to say I am a Trustee of the charity and privileged to support them in their work. General Manager, Colin Ferguson tells us all about the challenges of being a new charity, and the pioneering work, and successes they have had to date.
1. Tell us about the purpose of the Altitude Foundation
We want to create a world where all young people with a passion for technology are enabled to smash barriers in order to achieve a successful career.
Social mobility is arguably the most important and challenging issue facing British society today. One impact of this is that too many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with a passion for technology are left with huge untapped potential. Many don't go on to study technology subjects at A level or university, and don't pursue it as a career option, despite it having the power to transform their career and their prospects. We are uniquely positioned to bring together schools, industry and third sector partners to deliver transformative change.
2. What is it you do to deliver this?
Altitude Foundation enables young people with untapped potential to pursue their passion for technology, get their first job, and inspire others to do the same. We provide the finances, social capital, opportunities and supportive relationships needed to prepare for and succeed in tertiary education.
There are two different streams of activity for Years 9-11:
1. Code Co-Operatives are coding based clubs open to all students in Years 9, 10 & 11 in eligible schools.
2. The Code Project is a structured, time-limited activity for targeted eligible students. They build a working prototype to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, as part of the do your :bit international challenge.
There are two different streams of activity for Years 12-13:
1. Future Steps Events will support students’ knowledge and understanding of the possibilities of tech and digital careers, and is open to all students in Years 12 & 13.
2. Future Steps Mentoring is an additional stream for eligible students who want extra support in developing their understanding of career and education options in Digital.
3. Who are you working with currently?
We are pleased to be working with the following schools and academy trusts:
1. Northern Education Trust
2. Astley Community High School
3. NCEA Duke’s Secondary School
4. Jesmond Park Academy
5. Sandhill View Academy
We are extremely grateful for the support of our corporate partners, particularly Scott Logic, a fintech software development company headquartered in Newcastle. We have been fortunate to also work with:
1. Newcastle Building Society
2. NHS Business Services Authority
5. Newcastle University OpenLab
6. Gateshead College
We are enormously thankful for funding received from:
1. Scott Logic
2. The Platten Family Fund
3. Newcastle Building Society
4. The William Leech Charity
4. Introduce us to your team
Colin Ferguson is the General Manager. He is responsible for managing all aspects of the Foundation as it is established and grows. Colin is passionate about education, social mobility and demonstrating evidence-driven impact. When he gets the time, Colin likes to run (a lot) and clean up after his two cats.
Megan Venn-Wycherley is our new Programme Manager. Megan coordinates the Foundation’s programmes. Megan is currently completing a PhD in Computer Science education, and brings a wealth of experience in using the BBC micro:bit to teach fundamental computing concepts. In her spare time, Megan enjoys spending time with her horse!
Olivia Li is one of the Foundation’s Programme Officers. She is dedicated to striving for equality, and is committed to giving young people the opportunity to explore their interests. Olivia recently graduated from Newcastle University after writing a thesis that explored barriers to education. In her free time, Olivia can be found in the kitchen cooking up a storm.
Fergus Beckerleg is one of the Foundation’s Programme Officers. He is passionate about technology and computers! He wants to help all young people with the same passion access a digital career. Fergus has a background in archaeology and archaeological computer modeling. When not at work, Fergus enjoys gaming, reading, and learning about the world, past and present!
5. What are the key opportunities for Altitude?
The pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone. Whilst it created its own share of problems for our beneficiaries and for the charity itself, it highlighted some key opportunities for us.
Firstly, it made clear how important technology can be to overcoming the challenges of today and tomorrow. We need more people with high level digital skills, ready for the workplace of the future.
Secondly, it showed us that it is vital to have an open, inclusive offer that bridges the digital divide. Our programme offers exactly that, not obliging our participants to have their own laptops, broadband connections and the like in order to get the most out of what we offer.
Thirdly, we know that schools want the sort of service that Altitude can provide. Our young people have missed out on crucial months of learning, and we need to invest in them if we are to ensure that their life chances are not irreparably affected by the pandemic.
6. What are the key challenges for a new and developing charity?
Trying to keep on top of everything whilst working as part of a small team is always a challenge! We still need to meet the same sort of statutory, regulatory and reporting standards as larger charities, whilst working hard to secure funding and, most importantly, deliver our programme for our target beneficiaries.
We also have to work hard to get our message out there. The people that work closely with us know us well, but we do not have the name recognition to easily be given the benefit of the doubt when we first engage with schools, partners, or potential funders. That requires us to be clear about the benefits we can bring and the difference we can make.
7. What issues has the COVID pandemic presented?
Like many youth-focused organisations, Altitude Foundation experienced a drop off in engagement from our cohort. Although we were able to pivot quickly to a remote offering, a combination of factors limited interaction with our participants: access barriers, like not having a suitable device; not being able to translate some in-person activities to a digital platform; “Zoom fatigue” limiting the desire to attend more online events; and possibly even the negative impacts on mental health caused by lockdown.
Schools play a critical role in helping the Foundation to identify and engage with our target cohort: socioeconomically disadvantaged young people with a passion for digital and tech. With the closure of schools to all but the most vulnerable pupils, we found another barrier to engaging with some of our harder-to-reach participants.
Our experience during lockdown was not without positives. We have been able to trial new modes of delivery in the online space, learning more about how to engage with young people in live, participatory sessions and on our online community. We have forged new links with other organisations facing similar challenges to our own. And we have found new ways to engage with and get the most out of our fantastic volunteers, who we are enormously grateful for.
8. What is next for Altitude?
We are delighted to be running our Code Cooperatives in person and remotely again across schools in the North East. We know the model is popular, and we want to roll it out further, engaging with more schools and young people. We are particularly keen to expand our work in Gateshead and County Durham, for example.
We have just opened recruitment for our standalone Code Project, a structured activity running between January and June. Through this, we support participants to complete the Micro:bit Foundation’s do your :bit challenge, tackle the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and build a working product prototype using the BBC Micro:bit.
After that, the sky’s the limit! We want to be a truly Regional charity, working from Berwick to the Tees Valley, and from Blyth to Barnard Castle. We are keen to talk to any target schools (those performing below the national averages for cohort attainment at GCSE/A-Level, or with a higher than average proportion of pupils in receipt of Free School Meals) in the North East that believe their pills could benefit from improving their coding skills, smashing barriers, and going on to a successful career in digital and tech!
To find out more about the Altitude Foundation and its work you can find their website here: