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Business class

Shaking hands

Enormous amounts of time, effort and money have been invested in creating links between business and education, yet it is still an area in which schools and colleges struggle. Nigel Briggs looks at what businesses want from an education partnership.

Employer engagement, in various guises, has been a holy grail for successive governments, advisers, inspectors, headteachers, principals and governors. Why is it so hard? What sort of partnerships do work, and do they really make any difference?

There is remarkably little real evidence to go on. However, a research paper on partnerships by Huxham and Vangen of Strathclyde University sums up the difficulties as such:

"There has been much rhetoric about the value of strategic alliances, industry networks, public service delivery partnerships and many other collaborative forms but reports of unmitigated success are uncommon...What frequently happens in practice; the output from a collaborative arrangement is negligible, the rate of output is extremely slow or stories of pain and hard grind are integral to success achieved."

For schools and colleges embarking on a new venture, it is helpful to decide at the outset how deep and close the relationship should be.

The sort of 'strategic alliance' which some general further education colleges have with business sectors are probably unrealistic in schools or sixth form colleges (SFCs). There are obvious mutual benefits if chefs are being trained to create dishes which the hospitality and catering industry can sell or if hotels work closely with future potential employees.

There are fewer areas where this type of alliance works for a school or SFC because there isn't sufficient benefit on either side. Therefore, most schools and SFCs will prefer to work on individual projects with a narrow range of interaction.

Why partnerships fail

The DfES published a business survey in 2002, The Howard Davies Review of Enterprise and the Economy in Education, which gives employers' views on their contact with education and may partly explain why employer engagement can be so problematic.

It shows the range of activities that businesses supported, including work experience, participating in a programme such as Young Enterprise, visits to schools, pupil visits to businesses, participation in courses such as business studies, careers events, mock interviews, mentoring, reading or numeracy partners, and teacher placements. And what did the businesses feel as a result of all this expensive input?

The chart below shows that fewer than 40 per cent of business people surveyed agreed with any of the positive statements. It is horrifying that only 28 per cent stated that the link with the school/college had clearly stated objectives.

Howard Davies Review: Employer views

This can mean the difference between success and failure, as it did for one sixth form that started a project between
A level business studies students and a local business. The company's senior staff wanted to become involved but because they were short of time, meetings between the students and staff were cancelled at short notice.

There also was a marked reluctance to tell the students anything which might have commercial value. The business staff wanted a very specific task done on publicity materials; the students needed to have a more inclusive brief for their studies. The students produced new materials but received no effective feedback.

A properly constructed, mutually agreed and written brief and protocol at the outset could have saved a great deal of pain, either by defining the task better or highlighting that it wasn't a viable proposition.

What businesses want

Successful relationships of almost any sort tend to be built on 'win-win' arrangements. It is therefore worth knowing what can constitute a 'win' for a business which might be thinking of working with a school or SFC. The list includes additional income, reduced costs, source of good quality employees, publicity, access to new markets, employee training, new or improved products or services, reputation enhancement, and philanthropy.

Businesses might be expected to be attracted by the first seven because of their effect on the 'bottom line'. For estate agents it makes a considerable difference to their ability to produce quick, high-value sales when there is a top quality school or SFC nearby. Some will therefore commit resources, either money or time, to help maintain or enhance the quality of the school/college, or simply to be associated with its success.

In reality, most businesses are prepared to work with schools/colleges for minimal or negligible financial returns. Some use it for staff development and many for personal satisfaction and the chance to make a difference in the community.

They are nevertheless sometimes surprised by what they do get out of it. The DfES survey found the strongest return (36 per cent) was on innovation and new or improved products or services - I doubt if that was an initial aim.

From the mainly personal, unscientific evidence I have gathered from a range of successful and less than successful experiences, there are a few lessons I believe schools and colleges can take on board. Of course most of these are obvious, but I know I've failed to do them on occasion and the DfES survey shows I'm not alone.

  • Concentrate on development of knowledge and skills; attitude change is a bonus.

  • Be very certain what you are trying to achieve for the learners.

  • Use whatever support you can find to contact businesses that might help - Education Business Partnerships, governors, parents, staff. This is a time-consuming process.

  • Check what the business wants from the venture - it may be staff training, knowledge of the education sector or altruism, but you need to know.

  • Identify a reliable and effective contact in your school/college, not necessarily a teacher.

  • Be very conscious of the different perspective of a business. For example, your learners might need to go through the process of a marketing project; the business may only want the outcome.

  • Do not involve the business person in lengthy meetings while you discuss the details. Time really is money and goodwill disappears even faster.

  • Tell them exactly what you would like them to do - and don't assume that they can 'teach'. It's a skill few possess.

  • Check that they are comfortable with both what you are expecting and the aims of the exercise.

  • Confirm all the above in writing well before the event.

  • Organise a backup plan - business needs can, and do, stop people from participating with zero notice.

  • Look after business contacts as befits the expensive resource that they are; it's not your expense, but that's not the point.

  • Do evaluate, feed back and thank them.

Is bigger better?

There's no right answer in terms of what type of organisation to approach. There are far more SMEs (small and medium enterprises - under 250 staff) than large companies but large ones are more likely to have a policy which supports links while SMEs tend to depend on interested individuals.

Large companies are more likely to have the resources available to be able to sustain the support. However, a perennial problem with large companies is that the contact you have developed with such care frequently moves on to another part of the company, or disappears in a merger, restructure or takeover.

A third option is to look to individuals. I know of a retired engineer from the motor industry who ran an after-school 'imagineering' club in which pupils built and tested small-scale construction projects. Many retired people have the skills, interest, time and enthusiasm to contribute a genuinely 'business' perspective. One advantage here is that the recently retired constitute a resource which is both generally and increasingly available.

Of course there are many examples where true partnership links have been built and sustained. In one case, a company had a commercial need to develop a new type of mechanism to open a roof-light for a flat roof. They prepared a brief for the students and had a meeting to discuss it.

The students went back to their school and worked up a number of possible designs. They presented their designs formally to the company, which provided feedback and a small prize for the most promising design. Significant aspects of the design were incorporated in the company's new product. Both the company and the school benefited from substantial local publicity.

More than 20 years' experience has convinced me that there can be substantial benefits to schools, colleges and businesses working together, even if there's not much hard evidence to support it. Planning, preparation, monitoring and support are time-consuming and challenging but essential to a positive outcome.

Some businesses and business people are prepared to give their time freely to support such ventures, as long as it's not squandered. This is one long-term initiative that is well worth supporting.

Nigel Briggs has worked in schools and was principal of an SFC and an FE college. He has been on the board of Education Business Partnerships in Rotherham and Warwickshire. He now works independently, currently researching employer engagement with universities in a project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council. He can be contacted on nigel@nigelbriggsassociates.com

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