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Up, up and away

A company that makes aircraft ejector seats is just one partner of a school that uses a personal approach to boost its industry links programme. Biddy Passmore reports

Nothing beats a personal contact. It's a maxim that staff in charge of industry links at Merchant Taylors', an independent boys' day school in Northwood, Middlesex, have taken to heart. Rather than use the scattergun approach typical of many schools, or forge close links with a particular local industry, Merchant Taylors' decided to think selectively and long-term.

In 1997, Rob Morris, head of careers, and John Owens, a governor of the school and former deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry, put together a plan for links with specific companies.

"We started by identifying the school's needs," says Mr Owens. "We decided we wanted one company per sector, and not more than 10 overall, and that there should be a link between a manager in the company and a teacher at the school." The school uses former pupils or other school connections where it can. "It's not essential but it's helpful." So the engineering industry is represented by the highly specialised firm Martin Baker near Slough - a world leader in the manufacture of aircraft ejector seats, and part-owned by Dennis Burrell, the father of a pupil at the school.

And accountancy is represented by PricewaterhouseCoopers. There, the link is an old boy who learned about indirect tax as an official at Customs and Excise and took his expertise to PwC, where he set up the indirect taxation department. Other areas covered include medicine, law, banking, pharmaceuticals, electronics and the media.

In just two or three years, a busy programme of activities has been set up. Link companies will this year provide work experience for about 100 out of the 120 boys in the lower sixth, as well as sponsorship of careers conferences and speakers at seminars. Young managers from PricewaterhouseCoopers have given leadership training to school prefects, showing how brain-storming techniques could be applied to such knotty hypothetical problems as theft from the cloakrooms.

Cameron Richmond, a sixth-former who took A-levels last term, is planning to study compuer-aided design, following a work experience placement at Martin Baker. (He designed a paperweight, not an ejector seat, the company's clients might be reassured to know.) But the value of these links to the pupils is only half of the story. Staff, too, benefit from close involvement with industry and seeing a different way of doing things. "You know what a little world a school can be," says headteacher John Gabitass. "To get out into a company makes such a difference."

There are plans for staff exchanges and work shadowing - concepts he discussed with his staff during in-service training last term on the company links programme.

What is in it for the companies involved? An inside track to some bright, motivated graduates in a few years' time, of course - but companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers get those anyway (22,000 applied and 1,400 were chosen last year.) Link companies are encouraged to feel part of the school community, invited to events such as school concerts, offered the use of school sports facilities.

Rob Morris concedes, however, that "they're offering us a lot more than we're offering them".

Mike Fountain, old boy and PwC partner, agrees with that assessment but says the company's link with Merchant Taylors' is a lot more than a community service programme. He sees it as a useful way of explaining that a modern accountancy firm is more about people than about auditing. He was struck on revisiting his old school by how much earlier boys were making career decisions than in his day, perhaps because of the recession of the 1990s. So one of the messages he tries to get over to them (and to the parents pushing them into safe, money-spinning careers to which they may not be suited) is to keep their options open, study what they want, keep up extra-curricular activities and choose a career for enjoyment rather than money.

Himself a graduate in history and political philosophy, Mr Fountain points out that his work as a tax partner requires him to "be innovative and think outside the box rather than to crunch numbers".

It's a reassuringly broad and liberal message - certainly not the narrow, vocational approach the term "school-industry links" once conveyed.

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