Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Starting a chain reaction...

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Again recently, schools and colleges have been criticised by business leaders for doing a poor job of educating tomorrow's workforce. However, says John Dunford, industry has for too long done too little to create effective, long-lasting links with schools and colleges.

With the launch of the Education Employer task force, education/business links are in the news again. How sustainable will the links forged in 2009 be for the future?

Harking back to my headship days, I remember in 1986 - Industry Year in schools - spending an interesting week at the local carpet factory in Durham. The managing director made a reciprocal visit, spending several days in school, and subsequently joined the governing body.

It was fashionable for leadership courses at the time to draw parallels with leadership in business.

Then, as now, not everyone was convinced of the comparison between schools and industry. In a letter to the Guardian in October this year, Peter Stammers recalled presiding over a leadership course in which he asked headteachers what they thought were the similarities and differences between running a school and managing a Tesco store. "Schools cannot discontinue unprofitable lines," was the succinct response.

Peter's letter was prompted by the news coverage of the statement by Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, that schools are doing a poor job in educating the Tesco employees of the future.

This was particularly annoying and depressing, especially coming from someone in charge of a company whose considerable success is presumably based on the skills of its employees - many of whom are in schools and colleges on weekdays and on the checkout at weekends.

It is also frustrating that many employers, such as Leahy and successive directors-general of the Confederation of British Industry, receive so much publicity for their carping about the performance of the education service while failing to engage positively with education leaders at both national and local levels.

Of course, there is much good work that takes place between education and employers and it takes two to tango and build an effective link. But too often the strength of the link depends on an individual in each organisation and, if that person moves to another post in the company or to another school, the joint work struggles to continue.

Equal commitment

This lack of sustainability can only be solved by institutional commitment. That is to say, the inspiration and the lead for the link work on the part of both the employer and the school must stem from a senior level in the organisation.

When that happens, the drive for effective links goes down the line and ends up in the performance management of the people charged with making the link work at an operational level.

A major weakness in the 2009 report of the prime minister's National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE) was its recommendation that a member of the senior leadership of every school should be in charge of business links - without the parallel recommendation that a senior company executive should lead the business side of the link work. Links, and the drive behind them, must be two-sided.

As a member of the Education and Employer Task Force charged with implementing the NCEE recommendations, I have banged the drum for reciprocity of commitment and it was gratifying at the launch of the task force to hear the secretary of state, Ed Balls, and the task force chairman, Bob Wigley of Merrill Lynch, call for senior business people to engage with schools and colleges.

As a head I saw this at first hand. Two of the school's links were with local companies at branch manager level. I felt that my involvement demonstrated institutional commitment on the part of the school, while I knew that the lack of senior involvement from the company meant that the link was insufficiently embedded at the other end.

In contrast, a new large branch of Sainsbury came to Durham and the manager contacted me as head of its neighbouring school. At the time there was a national board decision from Sainsbury that all its branches should engage with three local schools and the manager was given a modest budget to oil the wheels of partnership.

Out of that grew an immensely productive link, including a termly artist-in-residence scheme, some of the outcomes of which can still be seen at the school many years later. Here there was institutional commitment on both sides, driven from the top.

Other companies make an equally strong commitment in different ways. Unilever supports all its employees who are school governors, including running an annual conference for them. HSBC produced an excellent series of guidance booklets on how to make the most of work experience for students, HSBC bank managers, careers teachers and parents.

There are plenty of such examples...but not enough. Business needs to be much more serious about its education links and to recognise that employers have as much to gain from links as the schools and colleges themselves.

Business wins

Ask any KPMG executive who has linked with a local head and they will all say that they are certain that they have gained more from the link than the head. They just cannot believe how complex is the job of school leaders in comparison to their own, how many different objectives schools and colleges are pursuing on behalf of their students, and how many human interactions a senior leader has as they walk from point A to point B, multiplied many times during the course of a working day.

If there is reciprocity of commitment, there is also reciprocity of benefit. Businesses have much to gain from links as well.

One very simple thing that ASCL asked the CBI to do a couple of years ago was to start a scheme to get the major companies in CBI membership to encourage their employees to become governors, especially in schools in challenging areas that often have the greatest difficulty in finding governors. Regrettably nothing came from this. But then the CBI has a poor record in this field, having failed to engage in any depth with education, and with schools in particular.

That is part of the reason why progress in establishing links has been so slow in recent years.

A further significant factor has been that, at a time of unprecedented change for schools and colleges, and turmoil for businesses, it has been difficult for both sides to devote sufficient management time to establishing and running good links.

Yet there are many bodies in the field encouraging the links, from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, HTI (Heads, Teachers and Industry, www.hti.org.uk) to various brokering bodies, now largely brought together in the newly formed Institute for Education Business Excellence (www.iebe.org.uk).

Academies and trust schools have extensive business representation on their governing bodies, as colleges have always had on their boards, but all schools and colleges can benefit from strong links with business. Only if they are driven from the top will they be sustainable.

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