'I'm not prepared to educate my kids for unemployment'

When John Shears took over as a headteacher in Redruth, Cornwall, 10 years ago, he found a town with high unemployment and little left of its traditional manufacturing and mining industries. He wanted the school to respond to the community's needs. "My mantra is: 'I'm not prepared to educate my youngsters for unemployment,'" he says.

Redruth School is an 11-18 comprehensive and technology college on the edge of the town. Around a third of its students come in by bus from outlying villages. In the 1990s, the school built on existing work experience links with local employers by giving industry an important place on the curriculum. Its innovative "work-related faculty" was given the same standing as existing academic subjects. The school began to expand in pre and post-16 vocational education. Work experience placements were extended from one week to two. Placements have included a school in Hong Kong, the EC in Brussels, and even a soup kitchen in California. Staff from around 40 local businesses come in to mentor youngsters or give talks, and the school meets twice a year with members of the business community to strengthen links.

"The message they were giving to us was that schools aren't delivering our needs," says Mr Shears. "We felt a need to respond. I think we are driving it all, having to pull them along because we are living in a community where most of the employers are small businesses, often self-employed - so they can't give their time and involvement in the same way.

"Businesses have wanted to respond. They're well-intentioned and most of them are committed to supporting us, but we have no big employers. We're almost the biggest employer in the town."

Alan Rowlings, who headed the school's work-related faculty, has now been seconded to Camborne Pool and Redruth Education Action Zone to extend these business links to other local secondary schools.

The action zone is piloting a project to incorporate a nationally recognised key skills qualification for youngsters on work experience with local employers.

"Cornwall is typically a county of small to medium-sized businesses. We haven't got major corporations down here at all," he says.

"That can work to your advantage because in one respect you have more businesses available to link in with the programmes you offer. The disadvantage is that their degree of involvement might be less widespread. But we find that generally we have a very healthy degree of support from businesses."

Why business finds it hard

* Difficulty of getting time off, particularly for middle management

* Geography - schools in rural areas are often not very near to businesses

* Lack of flexibility in curriculum time (too crowded to allow for new activities)

* Complexity of the brokerage. Establishing contact with the right school can be complicated as business can be confused by the number of agencies and programmes

* Lack of awareness of needs and opportunities that there are in working with schools

How firms can help schools

* Reading volunteering

* Numeracy volunteers (playing number games with children)

* Work experience

* Employability skills training

* Pupil mentoring

* Working with headteachers to improve the leadership and management of schools

* Sharing business skills and good practice

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