When Mearns Academy staff and pupils talk about linking with local companies to form real business partnerships, you'd better believe they mean business. At this rural secondary in Laurencekirk, Aberdeenshire, senior pupils are getting to grips with a growing number of real-life projects arising from their unique relationship with more than a dozen educationally enlightened firms in the north-east.
From finding solutions to the marketing and manufacturing problems of local firms, to leading a delegation of business people to meet their opposite numbers in their twin town in France, the pupils are experiencing a range of corporate challenges and opportunities which are normally the preserve of senior company managers and directors.
The school's innovative approach to the education-business ethos has assisted in the development of a new accredited award for business people involved in education, launched by the Scottish Education Business Partnership (EBP) network and the Scottish Qualifications Authority to introduce a national framework within which standards of excellence in school-business relationships can be encouraged and recognised.
Isobel Maughan, manager of Grampian EBP, and co-ordinator of the award pilot, explains the rationale behind the award: "There are all sorts of wonderful things being achieved between businesses and schools throughout the country, but these happen - and are evaluated - very much on an individual school basis.
"Some know exactly what they want from their partnerships with businesses, and vice versa. Other schools and their partners may be less certain and would welcome some guidance. The new EBP award sets a national standard for everyone by outlining criteria which should be met by business individuals working with schools to ensure that both they and the school know from the outset what the achievable outcomes will be.
"The ultimate aim is that all the pupils involved should have a consistently high quality of experience. But what's equally important is that the award allows education to show its appreciation for the excellent work being done by business people who give up their time to help young people improve their understanding and achieve the necessary skills for the world of work."
In the pre-pilot stage, Mearns Academy has worked closely with the SQA, testing out the criteria of one of the award's four units and helping to address early issues prior to the launch of the now live national pilot, which is being adopted by around 20 secondary schools.
The opportunity has been welcomed by assistant rector and EBP co-ordinator John Brown, who sees the new Scottish Vocational Qualification as giving added quality assurance to the school's established framework of business-related activities.
"It is giving all of us the chance to take a critical look at how we can sustain and improve on our business links so far."
During the past six years, his school's achievements have been considerable. Since taking the original decision to use funding offered by the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in Grampian to formulate a whole-school strategy for education-business development, Mearns has forged links with more than 100 companies, 14 of which have become fully-fledged "associate businesses".
John Brown explains: "We had very clear ideas about what we wanted to achieve. We didn't want to approach companies for money, or ask people to come into school and give one-off presentations about their jobs. Our aim was to develop proper partnerships in which the skills and experience of business people would have a direct influence on the curriculum and learning process. And so we chose to adopt a professional approach and put in place an action plan to bring in businesses at all levels of the curriculum over a three-year period."
Businesses were "recruited" through senior management networking, word of mouth and positive responses to tentative approaches, and a two-day induction programme was introduced to ensure individuals would at the earliest stage gain a good understanding of how the school operates and get to know its staff and pupils.
The school now has an excellent relationship with a diversity of firms, ranging from a one-person business to an international oil company and representing a broad cross-section of sectors. Each contributes to the curriculum in a way which best suits the individual, the company and the school and, as a result, a colourful variety of initiatives has emerged and developed over the years.
One of the most innovative projects - a problem-solving exercise involving real business challenges - was launched earlier this year as the school's unique alternative to the standard Understanding Industry course. The new programme brought in the Ardoe House Hotel, near Aberdeen, which, as part of the Macdonald Hotel Group, was in the process of expanding its conference and banqueting facilities. The company challenged three groups of sixth-year pupils to come up with the most successful ways to market and advertise these to business people, and to attract suitable hotel personnel to run them.
Andrew Laurie (16) and Gillian Argo (17) took part in the three-day project, which involved devising a strategy and presenting it to members of Macdonald's senior management.
"We were assigned to marketing the conference and banqueting suite itself and came up with the idea of publishing a quality calendar which the hotel representatives could take with them on sales visits," says Andrew. "I enjoyed being involved, because it was a real situation which made you realise the importance of marketing in running a successful business."
Gillian believes her group's marketing task was a little more challenging: "We had to find a way of marketing the bedrooms, which made us think hard. We eventually decided to find out what business people would like included in their rooms, and devised a market research survey, which would hopefully give the hotel some new ideas for 'extras' that would help to sell the facilities. "
In February the Mearns senior students also took part in the school's annual Equal Opportunities Conference, which involved six other north-east academies. Sponsored by local businesses, the popular event included a keynote address from a union national executive member, seminars led by associate business representatives and a stirring student debate over "quality, not equality". The conference has been developed over the past four years on an equal partnership basis between business people and school staff.
As a result of these initiatives, Andrew and Gillian, like most of their year group, now have a portfolio of business experiences, including work experience in S4 and, at the end of S3, participation in the Technology Is The Business problem-solving initiative, which, again, involved many of the school's associate businesses. Andrew, for example, spent two days at local food manufacturer, Macphie of Glenbervie, where he had to design more cost-effective packaging which would still meet the firm's quality-assurance criteria.
The symbiotic relationship between school and businesses has also extended beyond the local community. In 1995, Mearns Academy's links with Blaise Pascal, in Laurencekirk's twin town of Clermont-Ferrand in south-central France, brought the local business club into contact with their French counterparts, and led to a successful visit by pupils, teachers and club members and the development of positive educational, business and civic relationships which have continued ever since.
This "French connection" won the school the 1996 Caledonian Thistle Award for promoting education-business partnerships in Europe. It has also received the Gardner Merchant British Award (School With Many Businesses) for 1993. With the introduction of the new SVQ, Mearns will now be in a position to administer an award which gives recognition to the work carried out by its much-valued business partners.
John Brown is confident that for this reason as well as for important quality-assurance reasons, the award will be welcomed by most Scottish schools.
"I was initially concerned about the administration implications, but we have found that in fact it has integrated quite easily with our own evaluation process. The evaluation forms are extremely user-friendly and the whole process takes up very little extra time.
"The fact that credits are given for the candidates' past performance has meant that the business people involved have automatically fulfilled many of the criteria at the outset and I'm sure that many other schools will also find that this is the case for them."
Grampian EBP, tel: 01224 575100