Coalition wives join forces to give schoolgirls careers advice

Miriam Gonzalez Miriam Gonzalez said a lack of confidence was limiting girls' ambitions

Speed dating. Basildon. Samantha Cameron and Miriam Gonzalez. It's not often those words fit together.

The wives of the prime minister and deputy prime minister, making a rare joint appearance, were spearheading an Inspiring Women careers event at an Essex school, designed to ignite the ambitions of young women.

Basildon Upper Academy saw a small army of successful women arriving to give advice to schoolgirls.

This included a series of speed-dating-style, quick-fire sessions where the pupils could ask high-profile women about their careers.

The two first ladies of the coalition adopted different styles as they moved between tables of teenagers in the echoing school hall.

Miriam Gonzalez, wife of Nick Clegg, talked with passion and intensity, trying to stoke the fires of young minds. Samantha Cameron, whose image is perhaps more Badminton than Basildon, seemed to be coaxing ideas from some rather awe-struck-looking teenagers.

It was surely the most glamorous moment in Basildon's recent history since the town was name-checked in a Billy Bragg song.

'Bottle of confidence'

Labour's Tessa Jowell was also there, surrounded by a table of girls taking notes as she began to describe her experiences as a woman MP.

Samantha Cameron Samantha Cameron took part in a quick-fire careers session in Basildon

Sports presenter Clare Balding was present, dishing out head-girlish ambition, and said afterwards that she wished that there was a way of handing out a "bottle of confidence" to her young audience.

Drinking in the advice was Megan Johnson, in year 11, who said that too often girls were shoe-horned into stereotypical jobs.

Why should this be the case? When girls do better than boys at most exams and are much more likely to go to university, why shouldn't they have the pick of careers?

"It's what you see on television," Megan said. And she welcomed the chance to meet a wider range of role models face to face.

Alongside the big names, there were representatives from finance, manufacturing, engineering and health professions.

This classic overspill town was spilling over with high flyers.

Events such as this are intended to make sure that it's not lack of information or inspiration that holds girls back.

Women are being encouraged to go into schools and talk about their experience of work and careers.

The aim is for 15,000 women to volunteer to go into schools and reach 250,000 girls.

No limits

It's the result of an impressive coalition of business and education leaders, put together by the Education and Employment Taskforce, and its chief executive Nick Chambers.

Clare Balding Clare Balding said she wanted to give young people more confidence

It brought together firms such as Deloitte and Bank of America with the head teachers' union, the Association of School and College Leaders.

Also lending weight was the OECD's education guru, Andreas Schleicher, who now almost under local by-laws, has to be quoted in every education speech by a Westminster politician.

Mr Schleicher, says the English school system could be directly improved by greater investment in careers advice.

But it was Miriam Gonzalez, international lawyer, who was the presiding spirit of the event. This is a cause close to her heart.

She was from a "small village in the middle of nowhere" and had gone to a state school and had to overcome all the worries about not being able to succeed, she said.

And she warned that too often she had seen a lack of confidence among young women. "It limits them," she said.

She also told them not to be cowed by the confidence of some expensively educated people.

In her experience, she told the schoolgirls, there were lots of people who had gone to top schools, but were "frankly unimpressive".

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