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Payback time

He's a big cheese at Merrill Lynch, proud of the company's work with schools and determined to see it continue. Bob Wigley explains why to Susan MacDonald

Bob Wigley is one of those people who prove the old adage that if you want something done, ask a busy person. In addition to being chairman covering Europe, Middle East and Africa for Merrill Lynch, one of the world's top financial management and advisory companies, he is also involved in promoting business and enterprise in schools as chairman of the education leadership team for Business in the Community.

"Concentrating on studying and passing examinations in schools are very important, but, alongside that, it is equally important to prepare young people for the world of work," he says. "Teachers are very experienced in the former area, but not necessarily experienced enough to be able to impart the life skills that are needed for the latter - and that is where business knowledge can help."

Mr Wigley speaks from experience. "When I was at school, taking what were then O-levels, I was given the chance to take part in a Young Enterprise programme. With an explanatory kit and a mentor from the company sponsoring this challenge, I set up and ran a real company.

"I became managing director, and school friends were appointed to other senior management positions. We decided what the company would do and found the investment to make it happen.

"The idea was to get some exposure to the business world, and, for us students, being business people took about two hours work a week. At the end of the year, having won an award for the best company, it was closed down.

"Once students have passed exams, they are often encouraged to sit more - but rarely is it suggested that they open their own businesses."

Sitting in his London office overlooking St Paul's, he declares that thinking about future careers and entrepreneurship before leaving school takes students forward, whether into work or more studying. He went on to university with a part sponsorship from British Gas, and afterwards worked for the financial advisers Arthur Andersen, followed by Morgan Grenville, before joining Merrill Lynch.

"I'm involved in the education side of Business in the Community because I benefited from the help I had at school and want to put something back," he says. "We inspire the organisation's 700 companies to become involved or increase their involvement in education. It appears to work because 70 per cent of them have elected to focus on this area, and we work closely with the Department of Education and Skills to ensure cohesion when planning link-ups between companies and schools."

Perhaps one of the most telling ways of putting members in touch with the reality of education are the Seeing is Believing visits organised to schools, particularly those in areas of social need. To watch smart-suited chief executives walking diffidently into classrooms and perching themselves on child-size chairs that bring them down to the same height as the children is an eye-opener for the pupils, but even more so for the pinstripes in uncharted waters.

Merrill Lynch also has its own enterprise and entrepreneurship programme operating with state schools in nearby Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in London. The company works with Swanlea business and enterprise college, Bow boys' secondary school, Mulberry school for girls and Osmani primary school. More than 100 volunteers from Merrill Lynch regularly visit these schools to help pupils with basic skills, many of them pupils for whom English is a second language. They also support pupils at all levels, looking at employability, setting up mock interviews and helping them to compose CVs. The volunteers offer one-to-one mentoring, create business games, and organise activities (including visiting Merrill Lynch). Some even become school governors.

Mr Wigley is a one-to-one fan, believing that the value for both children and adults is the personal interaction: they both benefit. And, despite the Government's push for businesses to focus on 14 to 19-year-olds, he feels that working in primary schools is as important as working with older students.

"Pupils need different things at different ages," he says. "There is an equally good case for paying for a volunteer to help a primary school child with their reading as for funding initiatives at secondary level. When a young child falls behind with their reading, then he or she may start under-achieving. That can start truanting, which in turn may lead to petty crime. This, in the extreme, could mean young people ending up in prison - a situation that would cost the state increasing sums of money."

He is also involved in Partners in Leadership, where businesses work with headteachers on leadership and management issues. "If a school head has a particular problem he or she could well call one of us in for advice."

He is sure that Merrill Lynch could not halt its education programme even if the management wanted to. "We get such a lot of positive feedback from our volunteers who say how stimulated and special they feel because of the work they are doing. For instance, many of the boys they work with may have no one to look up to outside school and this makes volunteers feel that their relationship with them is even more important."

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