Politics and Civil Service Careers Under the Spotlight
Bolton School Politics

The latest Bolton School Perspectives lecture, compered by Head of CERI Ms Bradford-Keegan, saw four former pupils convene virtually to consider the wide range of careers on offer working in politics and the civil service.

Richard Walker, who attended Bolton School from 1978-1985, spoke first. He told how he won a scholarship to read Geography at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and how, whilst there, developed his burgeoning interest in politics, becoming involved in various election campaigns. He told too, how prior to university, in his gap year, he gained invaluable experience as a research assistant to Bolton MP, Peter Thurnham and wrote the pamphlet ‘Why Handicap?’ for him. In his final year of university, Richard sat and passed the Civil Service exam but decided instead to do an MSc in Urban Planning at Oxford Brookes University.

Richard recalled how his first role saw him working in a town and transport planning consultancy for 10 years. All the work he did, he said, was for local government but he also spent some time abroad. In 2000, he was in China, where he worked on the Shanghai transport plan – he described how China was just opening up at the time and was seeking out western expertise. Upon his return to the UK, elections were taking place for the Mayor of London and he helped Ken Livingston get elected.

Having seen the ambition of the Chinese for the 21st century, Richard went to work for the Greater London Assembly as a Transport Policy Officer and became involved with the London Plan and the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. Richard remarked that many of the things in the plan have only just come to fruition, such as The Elizabeth Line. After this, Richard revealed how he became involved with Regional Plans and the Strategic Rail Authority, which developed rail plans for the whole of England. He told how he was involved in the one covering the South East and was then part of the team that wrote the transport strategy for the North forming part of the Northern Powerhouse Plan. He revealed too how he helped create Transport for the North, based in Manchester, which is still in existence.

Richard described how, in the run up to COP26, he spent a couple of years at Leeds University, working as part of the DecarboN8 team – which was charged with asking how decarbonising transport in the north of England could be speeded up. He said it was nice to spend some time in academia but, he reflected, the grass is always greener – whilst you can’t say what you like in the Civil Service, you can in academia but you don’t have any power to change things! He then returned to the Department for Transport and, right now, is in the team helping to deliver the National Bus Strategy for England.

Beth Warke, Class of 2014, explained how she had secured three main roles as a result of her BA in Politics degree from the University of Liverpool. She told how her university offered a parliamentary placement scheme - a 3-6 month programme that you could do alongside your degree – which offered the chance of gaining first-hand experience of working in parliament instead of a dissertation. Beth didn’t do the programme but admitted to being envious of her classmates who did and was determined to move to London when she graduated.

Beth found work in Westminster as a Parliamentary Assistant to an MP for three and a half years, working closely with all party parliamentary groups (APPGs) during her time there. She said she had enjoyed a varied role with responsibilities including writing and submitting on parliamentary questions, including oral questions delivered in the chamber; policy briefings on various topical issues; dealing with a lot of political chaos at the time – the withdrawal agreement from the EU and a general election; and constituent casework related to policy.

After the 2019 election, Beth decided to leave Westminster but was keen to utilise her skillset, including her experience of working in Parliament and knowing about parliamentary processes, so she moved into the charity sector in a public affairs role. Her remit was to increase the profile of specific issues and topics in relation to a charity representing older people living in financial hardship. She then resolved to move back north and took a role in the Policy Engagement Unit at the University of Manchester. She explained how it is her job to connect academic research at the university with policymakers. She said she finds the work to be exciting, dynamic and unpredictable and that she has been lucky to work on a wide range of projects – including pensions, space, nuclear and AI.

Looking back, Beth said she really enjoyed her Westminster experience and the chance to get involved with things that she had read about in books. She also told the audience that you can make a real difference if you go into the charity sector. Reflecting on what skills were needed, she said her networking and sociability skills have been useful and her A level grounding at Bolton School. She said she had got to put into practice her knowledge of British political institutions, learnt at school and university. Her adaptability, she said, has been key and her ability to be able to work at pace with good written communication skills.

Nina Menezes, Class of 2002, is a Maths graduate who now works as a Software Developer in the Cabinet Office and has been a Civil Servant for a good while. Nina explained that civil servants are non-political but help governments implement and administer their programmes and policies. There are, she said, about half a million civil servants and many varied roles. Nina told how she studied Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh with some Computer Science and followed this up by studying for a Masters in Mathematics at the University of Manchester and then a PhD in Pure Mathematics at St Andrews.

Re-entering the world of work in 2013, Nina moved to London to join the Civil Service via their fast stream as an operational research analyst. She explained how she has worked in a variety of departments and roles, everything from working out how many people will sit driving tests and how many driving test examiners will be needed to data science and software engineering projects. She told how, in 2021, she joined the Covid Task Force in the Cabinet and led a team of seven data scientists and software developers. She revealed how she currently has a more hands-on role as a software developer in the Incubator for AI in the Cabinet Office. Nina explained how she builds apps and works on Prime Ministerial priority projects or projects to help the Civil Service become more efficient internally. She told the audience that there is nothing wrong with not knowing what you want to do when you grow up and admitted that she has done a lot of jobs that she’d never heard of when she was young.

Considering the question, why consider a career in the Civil Service, Nina said it is interesting work and that you often make a difference on issues that affect people’s lives; she also said there are many careers, opportunities to learn and to progress, and that there is a good work-life balance. The Civil Service, she felt, offers job stability as well as flexibility. She told how her job allows her to solve puzzles all day, something which she enjoys. To be a software developer, she explained, you need to know how to write code, to have logic and problem-solving skills, an ability to keep learning, persistence, good communication skills, the ability to work with other and to be adaptable.

Alex Waudby, who left Bolton School in 2012, also stated that he did not have a clear career path in mind while at school, aside from wanting to use languages and work internationally. Reflecting on this, he said it had not stopped him from having had some very interesting roles. He told how he took French, German and English Literature at A level and then French and German at the University of Bristol. He recalled how he spent a year teaching abroad as a British Council Teaching Assistant in the Rhineland and working in an art gallery in Paris. After graduating he spent two years in Hong Kong on a graduate scheme teaching English, which he knew a few Bolton School pupils had undertaken before him. During that period he recounted also having great fun running the college radio station.

Intrigued by Brexit negotiations from afar, he began to consider international Masters programmes and, whilst researching options, came across the Blue Book Traineeship scheme at the European Commission in Brussels. Thanks to speaking two languages, he was successful in joining DG Interpretation in Strategic Communications and Outreach, which saw him working at various conferences and gaining the opportunity to see how government works through a multilateral lens. Towards the end of his time there, in 2019, he was offered a role under the Civil Service Direct Appointment Scheme in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This role, he explained, involved communicating policy and regulatory changes to businesses to help them get ready for the UK's exit from the customs union. When Covid hit in early 2020, his remit changed and it became all about getting pandemic-related information out to businesses. He told how he had relished the fast-paced nature of it all. From there, Alex explained how he moved into private office – joining one of the teams that surround ministers and senior civil servants. This work, he said, could involve supporting anything from energy systems and networks, to trade, international engagement, business frameworks and labour markets. He said it was hard work and often involved weekends but that it gave him the confidence to take on bigger challenges. One area that he particularly enjoyed working on was nuclear and it appealed to him as the best technological solution for us to reach net zero, which encouraged him to move into that policy area in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

Addressing the question, why consider career in the civil service, Alex said that it is rewarding because you have the opportunity to truly make a difference and be able to work on the great issues of our generation, engaging your brain on a wide range of topics. In terms of skills, he said it is useful to have resilience, strong communication skills, a proactive and inquisitive nature, flexibility, and a willingness to take opportunities when they arise.

Mr Winrow chaired the question and answers session which generated a number of personal questions. Richard was asked what he thought the feasibility of street trams in towns such as Bolton was, Nina was quizzed on what the best use of AI is that she has seen in the world of politics and whether changes in government policy are frustrating or exciting, Alex was questioned on what he has learnt along the way and whether he expects to remain in the Civil Service in the long term and Beth was asked for her advice on how a student could follow in her footsteps. The session ended optimistically with all panellists talking about what gives them hope for the future. Sixth Form student, Ewan Davies, delivered a well-deserved Vote of Thanks.

Watch the Perspectives on Politics Careers Talk again.


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