Back to school for business

Employers must do much more to engage with and partner schools at primary level

In the UK today 3.7 million young people live in poverty – a stat made all the more shocking by the fact that only one in eight children from low-income homes go on to achieve a high income as an adult.

Add to this the Education and Employers Taskforce’s finding that teenagers who experienced two or more employer engagement activities at school are up to 20 percentage points less likely to be NEET as young adults, and the role of business in addressing Britain’s social mobility problem is clear.

There is much evidence to suggest that employer-school partnerships can work both ways, with boosted employee engagement and skills acquisition as two obvious potential benefits. But recent CBI/Pearson research revealed most organisations are only engaged with one half of the issue. While more than half (55%) of employers have links with secondary schools, fewer than a quarter (24%) partner with primary schools, the Primary Thinking report found.

And yet research shows that employer intervention at primary school level is vital. “What it comes down to is that young people have made their minds up about who they are by about 14, which is influenced by experiences they have at primary school,” reports community development manager at BP Ian Duffy, regarding his organisation’s research here (in conjunction with King’s College London and the Science Museum).

In a recent speech launching BITC’s Destiny should not be determined by demography report, president of the CBI and chairman of BITC’s Leadership Team Paul Drechsler described this as a “business blind spot”.

It exists, director of education at BITC Susie Perrett tells HR magazine, because primary schools are typically much more difficult to engage. This is due to not having extensive senior management teams, with the head teacher often the one with external stakeholder connections but little time to harness them.

But the main issue is that there is no framework for employers to follow, says Perrett. “We need that research and market knowledge of what would be the best way to engage and the kinds of activities that will actually add value for young people,” she says.

Perrett is hopeful that BITC will be able to partner with schools and businesses to develop this in the near future. She reports that many of the recommendations made by BITC’s Business Class Framework for secondary school partnerships, and the above report, will be applicable at primary level - schools working with a single business and long-term partnerships for example. But many recommendations won’t. So the imperative for a separate framework is strong.

Encouragingly there are others also looking at generating primary-specific advice, including The Royal Society and Project Enthuse. There are, however, plenty of employers for whom the issue is just too urgent to wait for such a framework.

The University of Manchester’s activities in this area include Year 6 visits to its campus, working with Year 5 children in local schools, and undergraduate students supporting literacy learning in class.

Alison Gregory, student recruitment and widening participation officer, advises “ensuring ambassadors and staff are well trained and sufficiently briefed on their role and how they should be interacting with the children”, so that “the day is organised with enough content to avoid children becoming bored or distracted”.

She adds: “It is important to raise aspirations from primary school-age as ideas and opinions about education, work and ambition are formed at an early age. It is harder to break the mould once children go on to secondary school.”