Five years ago Niall FitzGerald, chairman of Unilever plc, led a delegation of business people into two schools and a housing estate in Tower Hamlets in east London, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country.
It was intended as a fact-finding mission: delegates could see how the other half lived. The result has been a continuing partnership between the corporate giant and seven Tower Hamlets primary and secondary schools. Unilever has since chipped in extra funding for computers and sends its staff into schools to mentor pupils. Two headteachers have been on the company's international leadership courses, which it runs for its own senior management, and senior managers in schools are set to follow.
According to Patricia Hull, head of Central Foundation girls' school in Bow, east London, one of the seven involved in the partnership, pupils are reaping the benefits of the project, including work experience at the company's headquarters in the City of London. "It's done a massive amount to raise the aspirations of our key stage 4 students," she says. "They now realise that there are jobs and careers in the City that are open to them.
"Having that further input from people who have been through the education system and through university shows them that there are opportunities if you aspire to them, opportunities you can aim towards.
"And I think it's been good for the Unilever people, many of whom are public school, Oxbridge or similar."
This partnership may be held up as an example of good practice, but the picture of business links with secondary education across the capital as a whole is much less rosy, according to a report commissioned by Business in the Community and the business lobby group London First.
The McKinsey report, "Improving Secondary Education in London", finds that the business contribution lacks focus. Moreover, the Government's obsession with cash coming from companies doesn't help. The report is based on a three-month study, which included interviews with businesses and education business partnerships, an analysis of 400 secondary school inspection reports and surveys of headteachers. It says that London's secondary schools perform worse than the national average. Industry also fears for the quality of its future workforce because too many youngsters leave school with poor basic and key skills.
Work experience excluded, business activity touches only one in five secondary pupils in London, despite businesses spending over pound;10 million a year, mainly in covering the cost of employees' time.
The study finds only two types of initiative that reach more than 5 per cent of secondary school pupils. Year 7 and 8 pupils slip through the net and are less likely than primary pupils to experience business involvement.
Some headteachers have little confidence in the ability of education-business partnerships to innovate, beyond delivering work experience and teacher placements. The report also finds that much business activity in schools does not make the best use of business skills. Many activities with pupils could be carried out by any adult with basic skills, it says.
Current activity does not generally target secondary schools and focuses too much on work with pupils, rather than with teachers and headteachers, who have the potential to amplify its impact.
Schools and businesses are generally positive about the impact of business on education, but evidence of that impact is thin, says the report, and there is little evaluation of activities by schools, businesses and education-business partnerships.
Meanwhile, government initiatives including business involvement in education action zones, specialist schools and the city academy programme also come under fire. The report says that while each has its attractions, business regards them as merely seeking extra cash for education.
Among a raft of recommendations, the report proposes two initiatives to support secondary schools. One is called Business Education Skills Transfer (BEST), which would provide people seconded from industry to go into schools and support management. The project is to be piloted in three areas - at least one of them outside London - in the next academic year. "This programme would provide schools with more targeted professional support than can be provided by school governors, and at the same time provide business volunteers with professional development opportunities proportionate to the commitment they are able to make," says the report.
The second recommendation is Teach For London, a bid to bolster recruitment by fast-tracking graduates who might not want to commit themselves to a full teaching career into the profession for two years. The logic is that a proportion of them will enjoy it and may decide to stay.
It is based on a recruitment programme in the United States in which half of those joining the programme stayed on in teaching. The idea is that "business recognition of the programme would contribute to its prestige and the status of the teaching profession more generally".
The Business in the Community and London First report has been put before ministers and discussed at BITC's national conference in February, but has not been widely published. Its scope is limited to London, but its findings are relevant to the rest of England and Wales. Business involvement varies by area, dependent on how the strength education-business partnerships and the contribution of local learning and skills councils.
"The issues are very much national," says a BITC spokesman. "In London, it's exacerbated because of property prices and the challenges that face schools. But the same issues occur in all inner-city areas."
Support from business is also lacking for rural schools, says Roger Opie, director of education for the Work Foundation, formerly the Industrial Society.
"One of my persistent criticisms has been the focus and highlighting of issues in inner-city areas," he says. "I have a great deal of empathy for schools in rural communities who do not have immediate business support.
"It's not everybody who's got a Marks amp; Spencer or a Tesco round the corner who are happy to work with them. With rural areas, I think we've got a way to go in finding out the kind of support that may be available from the community."