More than money

She believes passionately that industry has a lot to offer schools, but she's long campaigned for a new government approach: one that recognises that the best results happen when employers become involved with schools. At last, her voice is being heard Julia Cleverdon, director of Business in the Community, explains why to Ian Nash

Julia Cleverdon has waited 20 years to hear a Chancellor of the Exchequer say it. The failure of Nigel Lawson to do it sank the Tories' first efforts to create 20 city technology colleges. And New Labour's early stab at education action zones was hindered by the lack of it.

The "it" in question relates to the Treasury's insistence that industry's help for schools and colleges should be in the form of cash. When the people paying the piper feel that throwing more money at a problem is not the real answer, asking them stump up is not a policy guaranteed success.

So it was music to the ears of the director of Business in the Community (BITC) when Gordon Brown, appealing for pound;30 million for a finance education scheme, said he was happy for companies to pay in kind.

"I cannot describe strongly enough what this means," said Cleverdon. "This is revolutionary. For 20 years, the Treasury has completely refused to believe that companies had anything other than money to contribute to business-education links."

While she agrees that industry should try to help financially, it was not the cash but support in kind that made the real difference - and the successes and failures of the past two decades bear witness to this. In that time, the feisty, diminutive Ms Cleverdon has battled to improve links - from her work with the Industrial Society to her meteoric rise as head of an organisation that employs 700 people in business support for community affairs.

Descriptions of BITC have ranged from "the Prince of Wales' private club of businessmen" to "the most influential force on the business-education stage". Either way, it is a magnet for the most influential leaders of organisations - from the headteacher unions and education-business partnership leaders to the captains of industry.

She recalls with a shudder the awful days of the early 1980s when these links were at their nadir. Treasury wilfulness combined with the "frightful" Shaping Tomorrow conferences organised by the Department of Trade and Industry left everyone depressed, she says.

"You had business leaders on the one side saying: 'Kids cannot read, cannot write, cannot do fractions.' On the other, you had schools saying: 'We are not here to produce barrow boys for your industry.' Unfortunately for young people, industry had as much charisma as a rusty kettle."

The likes of the "awful" Nicholas Ridley as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry did not help, she says - especially as he put the kibosh on early efforts to promote work placements for teachers.

"He said: 'I cannot conceive what it is that industry has to do with education.' And that was almost that."

Not quite. Under the direction of its head, Peter Davies, the Teacher Placement Scheme soon found 10,000 slots. "Peter acted as broker between business and the community and kept stressing that if you don't get partnerships to work, nothing will happen."

The late 1980s did see improvements, with Sir Keith Joseph, as Secretary of State for Education, pushing for a greater understanding of industry in schools. The School Curriculum Development Committee also promoted greater awareness through a committee for economic understanding.

Then came the national curriculum. "While we were right to introduce it, I'm afraid that we did lose much of the integrated approach that developed between schools and business - we are only just getting back to that now."

She believes that it is only in the past five to eight years that the real lever for partnership and change - leadership - has been understood.

"When I began, leadership was all about the impact and influence that chief education officers had on schools. Then headteachers became more important - but dominated by targets, computer returns and league tables, it was impossible for leaders to lead. Nonetheless, I have seen some brilliant leadership in situations where things appeared hopeless."

Such brilliant leadership, however, was not the mainstream.

"Increasingly, isolated and lonely, heads took on more responsibilities without enough support," she says. Which is why the BITC Partners in Leadership initiative was created so that heads could meet and shadow local industry leaders.

A salutary lesson in just how far things had changed came when Cleverdon addressed a conference in the north of England just after the Government had announced five-day leadership courses for all heads. "I looked at the sea of senior education officers in the hall and asked - since this was set to transform leadership throughout the country - 'How many of you have been through the course?'

"Not a single hand went up. It was at that moment that I realised that local education authorities had only a marginal role. That is not to say there are no dynamic chief education officers - there are - but power has shifted significantly.

"In business, if you were going to put your frontline leaders through such a culture change, you would always put your most senior managers through it first."

More than 4,500 headteachers (out of a national total of 25,000) have so far signed up for Partners in Leadership.

"Why should the twinning of a head with a business leader be of such value? Because the common factor between education and industry is leadership. I did not understand that 20 years ago."

It was around the question of leadership and training, not only for heads but for teachers too, that new partnerships would be fostered. And it is in this arena that people from both sides most readily identify and solve mutual problems, she insists.

"It is here where trust and mutual support develop," she adds. "Throwing pound;250,000 at a specialist technology school will not in itself change the ethos."

But achievements to date should not be denigrated, says Cleverdon, reeling them off by the dozen. There is the Merrill Lynch reading support programme in which 260 staff spend time with pupils at Osmani primary school in Tower Hamlets. Meanwhile, at Jaguar, all staff are involved in community support.

"Brilliant partnership schemes can be found," she says. "Ten years ago, we did not realise the effect there would be from companies getting involved in education."

Latest BITC research shows that where a firm has a community support programme, 4 per cent of staff will get involved. But if the company actively promotes it, the average rises to 20 per cent.

"The finance company Capital One pushed its participation to 26 per cent through promotion, winning a BITC award," says Cleverdon. "But education-business links still need to be better. We have come a long way from the programmes that fostered nothing but suspicion."

Some lessons were learnt too late, she says. And compacts in which companies guaranteed support in line with contracts drawn up with parents, pupils and schools should not have been abandoned.

The most depressing finding of the McKinsey report (on business-education links in London) was that, according to heads, business contacts reached only one in five secondary pupils.

Even so, the detail of the report is less pessimistic than the data alone suggests. It points to the inadequacies of the Government's policy in pressing the case for cash and shows that the best achievements come when employers get into the schools. As Cleverdon says: "You won't get industry involved unless you get their people playing roles in education.

"When we asked heads what difference partnerships make, they said their biggest problem was getting teachers in front of classes and that senior staff were spending more and more time bidding for targeted pots of cash."

The way forward is staring us in the face, she concludes.

"The old ways of funding County Hall are not operating any more. That may be a good thing, but where do heads and teachers find a critical friend to help them? At the same time, industry is saying: 'Isn't there more we can do to help schools other than mentoring and reading support?'

"I want a jumbling up of teaching and industry, constantly changing, through knowledge networks and a sharing of expertise. Then we will really see what education-business links can achieve."

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