· 7 min read · Features

School's out: why business has a crucial role to play in education


It’s the Big Society in action: Tina Clark, PA to Andrew Likierman, dean of the London Business School, has been acting as a mentor to Haverstock Hill Comprehensive sixth-former Kerry Drew, in the run-up to her A level exams this summer.

"It's a mutually transformative process," says Clark. "Kerry is more confident about reaching her grades and making the right career choices, and I have learned fundamental management skills, such as asking someone to reconsider their work without directly criticising."

Their mentoring relationship was brokered by the business link organisation, Career Academies UK, a scheme supported by over 900 business mentors. GCSE and A level results continue to show improvement, but with demand for university places exceeding supply and worrying unemployment among 18-24-year-olds, employers are looking for more. They think school-leavers lack core skills – team working, communications, problem solving – but instead of just criticising, business is getting involved.

The Government's tight rein on education spending calls for a greater degree of involvement in the Big Society. On 11 July, the Government published the Open Public Services white paper as the first step towards ending the state's monopoly of public service provision. Under the white paper, charities, community groups, private companies and John Lewis-style mutual companies would run public sector organisations. What is now the Big Society could yet morph into privately run state schools and, as communities will play a big part in deciding what services are hived off, this could further fragment Britain's school system.

Change is being introduced rapidly and without much consultation. In March, after brief talks with schools and employers, secretary of state for education Michael Gove outlined plans to introduce the English Baccalaureate or 'E-Bac'. The qualification will be awarded to pupils who secure good GCSE grades in English, maths, sciences, foreign languages and a humanity. The E-Bac will give the broader educational outlook many employers prefer.

The E-Bac will hit schools in disadvantaged areas, though employers are supportive. "We have been vocal about the need for functional ability in maths, literacy and IT," says Andy Palmer, head of skills at BT, while National Grid education and skills manager, Richard Earp, added: "E-Bac will incentivise schools to teach more STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths)."

The Government's policy on education spending has had many critics. It certainly calls for a greater degree of involvement in the Big Society - and business is responding. BT, for instance, provides 3,600 or so work placements to school pupils around the UK. "It is part of Business in the Community's work inspiration scheme. Young people spend a week with us being inspired. We also supported the development of the diploma in IT and as a result have had more young people working with us on IT and engineering projects," says Palmer, who plays a key role in BT's HR and recruitment strategy.

Organisations such as Business in the Community, Education and Employers Taskforce and Heads Teachers and Industry have a long track record of working with employers and schools and are gearing up to take part in Big Society projects.

Involvement in the Big Society takes many forms. BT's focus on skills has led it to sponsor three new academies: in Hastings, Hackney and Manchester. Other employers support vocational training, business mentoring, placements to head teachers and investing in curriculum materials for schools.

No one size fits all. Lord Harris, chair of floor covering retailer, Carpetright, heads a federation of nine academy schools in South London. Since taking over the failing Kelsey Park comprehensive from Bromley Council in January with overwhelming parental support, Harris has seen applications for next term increase sixfold. "Our nearest Harris Academy, Crystal Palace, has received 3,200 applications for 180 places. Many of those disappointed parents are heading our way."

HR practices borrowed from the private sector replace the nationally negotiated pay and conditions that local authorities are forced to abide by. Six Harris Academies are classed by Ofsted as outstanding. Why? "Because we can pick the best teachers. Our staff work an hour longer a day, in return for an extra £1000 a year. And we award bonuses to staff for 100% attendance, with a special £250 incentive if a teacher can raise subject attainment by 10%," says Harris, who also provides staff with a company laptop and private healthcare insurance.

Clearly passionate about giving opportunities to local pupils, many from a deprived background, Harris observes that the ethos of the school is the most important factor in its success.

There is a high degree of consensus across the political spectrum about the benefits of business involvement. "The Big Society was originally a Labour idea," asserts former Labour education minister Estelle Morris (now Baroness Morris of Yardley). "If you are left-wing, you see the state as being enabling and if you're right-wing, you believe the state takes away your freedom. Before 1945, people didn't look to the state to provide education. It was the church and the trades union movement that established local schools and drove up standards."

Business link organisation Heads Teachers and Industry (HTI) believes Big Society initiatives are a lot more focused than the ways employers used to engage with schools in the past. HTI chief executive Anne Evans says: "The Big Society is more than corporate social responsibility. It is about businesses genuinely adding value to a school and ensuring learning outcomes for young people and often reflects the passion of their CEOs."

Lloyds Banking Group's take on Big Society is a scheme called 'Lloyds Scholars'. This year, under the scheme, the bank is sponsoring 30 high-achieving students from working class backgrounds through the final year of their degrees. "Next year, the scheme could be extended to talent-spot sixth formers. It is the brainchild of our chief executive, António Horta-Osório," says Lloyds TSB spokeswoman, Claire Barratt.

National Grid's Big Society plan is running two work experience weeks for 100 sixth-formers at its residential training centre in Nottinghamshire. It supports the 14-19 university technical college (UTC) idea dreamed up by the Baker Dearing Trust to improve facilities. "We aim to get the message across to bright students who have choices that engineering is a rigorous academic discipline which leads to a rewarding career," says National Grid's Earp.

Abingdon-based educational IT company RM has even more reason to be involved in Big Society. "Our customers are schools, so education is in our DNA," says its head of HR, Deb Self. RM has invested £500,000 in setting up a demonstration classroom at its HQ to show schools how they can reconfigure their IT. "We have redesigned the classroom to create a 21st century learning space. We present different types of technology and invite classes of 14-15-year-olds to spend the day with us," says Self.

RM is a technology partner in the new RSA Academy at Tipton, West Midlands, and aside from IT pro bono work, employees are urged to volunteer in schools. These activities are expected if RM is to maintain its reputation as an employer of choice. "The business case is that it is difficult to recruit and retain talent. Our involvement in education is a large part of why people stay with us," says Self.

At the cutting edge of Big Society, Lord Harris asserts freedom from state interference is a powerful argument in favour of new free schools, especially if backed by parental demand. "Don't you think parents have a right to send their children to good schools?" he asks.

But many argue that free schools, although fine in principle, would quickly divert government funding away from cash-strapped local authorities, undercutting their ability to provide a minimum level of education to small primary or special needs schools. Another question is whether this myriad of small schemes will eventually impact on the three million or so UK secondary students, or be lost in translation.

It is employers' demands for a higher skilled workforce and the international league tables devised by the OECD that are now driving the education agenda. Employers need to approach Big Society responsibly. "Business has a crucial role to play. The more children are exposed to business people and business practice, the more school standards will rise. And that has to be good," says Baroness Morris – and it's difficult to disagree.

Case studies

Simon Woodroffe, founder of Yo! Sushi and CEO of Yo! Company, believes education needs to be inspiring. As a patron of Heads Teachers and Industry's Go4It Awards, Woodroffe encourages schools to devise employability and enterprise challenges that fire pupils' imagination. "Kids respond to heroes in business and they love to celebrate success. But many fear going into the big wide world of business. I teach kids that as well as being a bit scary, actually it's an exciting world out there," he says.

This year's crop of 25 Go4It winners set up enterprise clubs, made films and created community gardens. Southgate FE College in North London won by designing a swipe-card system for its local football club, Tottenham Hotspur.

Woodroffe left school at 16 to become a roadie for bands such as Rod Stewart and the Moody Blues, before hitting the jackpot with his Japanese-themed fast food chain, Yo! Sushi. He says Go4It encourages the 'can do' attitude employers value. "HR professionals spend a lot of time helping young people be the best they can be. Our challenges teach kids to take responsibility and set them free to be creative."

One of Go4It's most notable successes is St Mary's Church of England primary school in Kidderminster. Some 18 months ago, the school was in special measures, after pupils scored just 7% on Key Stage 2 SATS (standard assessment tests). Two months ago, the school came out of special measures, judged to be "good" by Ofsted, after Go4It encouraged teachers and pupils to make a fresh start. "Maths teaching was related to a business challenge in which kids set up a tuck shop, ran a car wash scheme to raise funds for charity and set up a French café for parents. Children's authors and a theatre group visited the school to kick-start family literacy," says early years teacher, Karen King.

Last month, Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) launched a £750,000 education centre at its Sidcup site in Kent.

The new centre is the fourth of its kind in the UK and part of the company's national education programme – a drive to introduce young people to the world of business and enterprise.

CCE aims to host more than 200 visits every year, reaching some 4,000 students from local secondary schools, colleges and universities.

Simon Baldry, managing director of Coca-Cola Enterprises, explains: "We are committed to playing a positive role in the communities in which we operate, and one of the best ways to achieve this is by opening up our factory doors to support the work of educators."

But he adds: "I'll be candid. The [initiative] is not purely philanthropic. We want to attract the best talent we can and for these students to remember us when they are graduates looking for jobs.

"Our education centres offer students valuable insight into the world of business, allowing them to make connections between what they learn in the classroom and modern manufacturing practices. Modules taught at the centre link directly to the national curriculum, and we have built excellent relationships with schools across the country."

CCE's fourth national education centre has been developed as part its 'Olympic Games legacy' programme. It is located at the Sidcup site, which will play a pivotal role in supplying soft drinks to the Olympic park in Stratford for London 2012.

The centre is equipped with interactive classrooms and is purpose-built to deliver a subject-related insight into the production process, alongside a tour of the factory floor.

Each centre is run by a General Teaching Council-registered teacher employed directly by Coca-Cola Enterprises, and looks to support the teaching of a variety of subjects, including business studies, science, Information and communications technology, engineering, design and technology.