Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

One size fits all?

Clothes tags

Julie Nightingale looks at two schools and a sixth form college that have achieved some success, and learned some valuable lessons, in building links with businesses small and large.

Schools and colleges have traditionally linked with local firms for work experience placements but there's potentially more capital to be made out of a business relationship - sponsorship and mentoring are just two of the possibilities.

However there can also be practical difficulties to maintaining a relationship; these may require more effort and a new approach on the part of the school and college.

The Freeston Business and Enterprise College in Normanton near Wakefield gained its specialist status in September 2003 and in putting together its bid, head Gillian Metcalfe proved to be pretty enterprising herself.

Catching sight on TV of business mogul Sir Philip Green - boss of Bhs and Top Shop - who was insisting that companies should work more closely with schools to introduce them to the realities of modern business, she was compelled to write to the multi-millionaire and explain her school's plans.

A few days later the phone rang. It was 'Philip', as he introduced himself, offering to underwrite £10,000 of the school's specialist status bid.

Freeston has since established a long-term relationship with Bhs which has gone way beyond securing work experience placements. Students have attended 'immersion days' at the store's London HQ to talk with staff about their roles and day-to-day responsibilities as part of business studies coursework and Metcalfe herself has spent a day in London shadowing Philip Green's deputy.

Young store managers also act as mentors to year 10 and 11 business studies students. "It can help with their own professional development," says Gillian.

"Guiding and developing other people is something they might have to do in their own organisation and working with our students gives them experience of it; it's another skill that they can offer as a professional."

Parent feedback

There are other benefits. The school staged a Bhs fashion show with students modelling the clothes to a packed hall of parents.

Gillian says: "Bhs realised they could do some market research with the audience so they asked the parents to fill in a shopping questionnaire. In return they got a £5 Bhs voucher. Based on the feedback they got, Bhs removed some lines in their local stores and relaunched others."

The school works with a range of other companies, including Asda and the Co-op, though not all of them are large - one is a local kitchen manufacturer. Straightforward sponsorship is difficult to secure because there's not much money around, says Gillian.

Rather than take a begging bowl approach, the school tries to package it as a quid pro quo arrangement.

"When we try to get a link going with a business, we are very clear about what we believe the business can gain from us. We don't ask them to do us a favour. We pitch it as a two-way process."

Securing links with business is one thing; maintaining them is another. The school had a dedicated Bhs regional contact but she has recently moved on; it's at that point that priorities can sometimes change.

Similarly, making the first contact with the head office can be the easiest part; it's the ground work and the relationships with the shop, office or factory floor that can prove more complex.

Gillian says: "I go to Chamber of Commerce and other events where I might meet people at the top of an organisation. Often they are the ones who are very keen to help but they tend not to be the ones who will have to make the links work on the ground and give up their time. That's where it can break down."

Freeston's solution has been to use its 'enterprise champion' to take care of the legwork. This person's chief role is to examine schemes of work and see where an enterprise angle might fit.

It's the same approach at Andrew Marvell Business and Enterprise College in Hull. There the job of the business and enterprise network manager is to pitch the school to local businesses and to manage the relationships.

The manager is available by phone all day, every day, says Gary Mangan, deputy head. "Businesses need a regular contact. They don't want to hear you are in lessons when they call with a query, they want a quick turnaround."

There can also be high mobility in some companies so having a structure in place to work with new people means the relationships are more likely to continue after an individual has moved on, he says.

Andrew Marvell school is supported by a number of local businesses and one major one, the Co-op, which underwrote the school's initial specialist status bid.

The Co-op has a network of eight business and enterprise schools it supports; the network has curriculum working groups which meet regularly as well as a steering groups of heads.

Students from the school have helped the company with market research as part of a re-branding exercise while the Co-op regularly uses the school as a venue for events and has also given money for community schemes, such as an IT and literacy skills project for local unemployed people.

The school is also one of the trust school pathfinders and is working with the company to explore potential models of governance.

Ethical advantage

One of the advantages to working with the Co-op is that its status as a not-for-profit social enterprise effectively mirrors the values of social responsibility that the school tries to inculcate in its students, says Gary.

"There are no ethical grey areas with the Co-op," he says. "They are working for their members. Our local shop is a Co-op so it ties in very nicely."

Because the relationship now is based on mutual benefit rather than the hard cash of sponsorship, the school does not feel beholden to its business partner.

Moreover, says Gary, the company gets a lot out the link: the school's five A-C GCSE rate has risen from 24 to 67 per cent since 2002 which looks good in company publicity.

The school has also invested time in helping business staff understand the nuances of education, for example the language.

"It's true that schools are very jargon-rich and you do need to explain things to business people. We have just done a project with business explaining what vocational qualifications are and what the different titles mean. It's quite time-consuming but worthwhile."

The two business and enterprise schools have the advantage of dedicated enterprise managers and a remit that compels them to work with business - which is itself a selling point to companies, large and small. It can be a different situation for schools and colleges without either.

Time - on both sides - and funding are key issues, says Anne Robinson, vice-principal of King Edward VI, a sixth-form college in Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

"There are other problems to do with the economic health or geography of a region," she adds. "The West Midlands has been very badly hit by the decline in the manufacturing industry."

King Edward does have some significant links with business. Students have helped with business-related academic research, such as a recent study of night-time working and its contribution to the economy and another with the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) into the impact of part-time employment on post-16 students.

They also take part in competitions staged by accountancy firms in which they have to use their accountancy, marketing and decision making skills in devising a business plan for a particular product.

Insider information

Some departments invite business people in to talk about aspects of management, but companies can be reticent about giving students too close an insight into their specific operation.

Mike Deasy, head of business studies and social sciences, says: "In business studies, we have coursework for which students need to use information about real businesses and we have companies who help us with it.

"In the physics and technology departments, students also work with companies as part of their coursework; they identify a problem and have to design a product to help the company resolve the issue.

"It can present difficulties in that businesses are concerned about confidentiality. They want the project to be a valid piece of research to the business but they are worried about their data falling into competitors' hands."

Businesses also have their own constraints. "Sending staff out to work in a college is a cost to them. The days of altruism are effectively over in that sense, though there are some who will still participate because they feel it is a worthy cause. On the other hand, local employers do recognise that our students are good, so there is a benefit there in working with us."

Mike says the demand for business link-ups is also growing as more schools seek to supplement the 14-19 curriculum with employer input and employers are becoming more selective. It suggests that the number of requests may expand further once the new vocational diplomas are under way.

Anne Robinson adds: "In particular, employers who are in a niche market could find they are overloaded with requests while they are trying to run a business. Whether they can spare the resources to respond to all the requests, we have to wait and see."

Julie Nightingale is an education journalist who writes for The Guardian and other publications.

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