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Quiet, we have much to discuss

Judy Mackie sits in on the steering group meeting of an education business partnership that has been so successful - for all parties - it has become a model for others

As meetings go, this one surely is a model. Focused and brisk, within the designated hour it covers all 14 points on the agenda, plus four other items of business, including a short presentation, yet there is still time for some round-the-table banter and bursts of laughter.

To an outsider, it is obvious the participants are comfortable with each other and are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the business in hand. It is no surprise the well conducted meeting is part of a far wider success story.

The typical monthly gathering of Aberdeen's Kincorth Academy-PGS Production Services partnership steering group symbolises all the strengths of the pioneering long-term education-industry relationship that has flourished despite significant management changes on both sides.

The award-winning partnership was launched in October 1998 by John Milligan, the chairman of Atlantic Power, which later became the oil and gas service company PGS Production Services, and by former Kincorth Academy headteacher Mike Stuart. As the first long-term initiative of its kind in Grampian, it was described at the launch by Isobel Maughan, of Grampian Education Business Partnership, as "holistic in approach and very much embedded in the hearts of both the school and the company". Its aim, formalised in a special charter, was to raise aspirations throughout the school and open up opportunities for children and staff from both organisations to further their personal and career development.

Four years on, these principles still hold true, having inspired many ambitious projects and rewarding experiences along the way, involving a broad spread of pupils, school staff and PGS employees. The relationship attracted a national award for excellence from Business in the Community in 2000 and this year was voted Outstanding Business by Grampian EBP.

The 18 items discussed at the steering group meeting are the current projects. The priority is the Kincorth community gala day celebrating the partners' success in transforming the school's disused football pitch into a first class "field of dreams". The fundraising effort behind it was one of the partnership's original projects and it sparked a range of initiatives, from junior pupils selling home-baked produce at the PGS headquarters, to senior pupils organising two high profile business dinners, attended by senior PGS executives, some of their clients and MSPs, in Aberdeen. Now the dream has been realised, a joint project team has been arranging a variety of fun activities for stakeholder guests of all ages.

Other matters the steering group reviews include a problem-solving induction event for pupils entering S5, an annual awards ceremony recognising pupil achievement, the installation of an integrated learning system aimed at improving S1 and S2 maths and English skills, a mentoring programme to help raise the aspirations of a group of S3 pupils and work on a website and newsletter which will help to raise awareness of the partnership, both internally and throughout the Aberdeen community.

Mentoring will add a new dimension to the personal and social education curriculum, which has already been enhanced by the partners' development of sessions covering career choices, preparing a cv and interview skills.

The group also hears about the successes of a civic reception hosted by Aberdeen City Council in recognition of the partnership's achievements, a PGS client evening which was attended by two S2 pupils from the partnership's communications group, whose presentation of a Kincorth-PGS timeline they had created was well received, and the launch of a music CD, Gimme a Beat, recorded by Kincorth pupils and staff and sponsored by PGS to raise funds for the renal unit at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

With so many activities going on, any school could become overwhelmed. However, headteacher Hugh Bryce is confident the right balance is being struck.

"We have an effective management structure in place to ensure the projects we take on board are realistic and achievable. Each project has its champions and the steering group meets regularly to provide guidance, push projects through, evaluate success and discuss new ideas. Key to the process is keeping the focus on the pupils and on how the projects will benefit the school and its wider community."

Mr Bryce sits on the steering group with assistant headteacher Noel Hughson, senior teacher Fiona Alexander and two senior pupil representatives. Seated with them at the PGS boardroom table is human resources director Louise Ferguson, an original member of the group and a former Kincorth Academy pupil with a keen professional and personal interest in the partnership.

She is joined by colleagues Corinne Lea, Fiona Anderson and Lesley Grant, a young member of Mrs Ferguson's training and development team who is responsible for leading the induction day project in conjunction with a Kincorth teacher. This provides an opportunity to develop her skills in course and event management. To a similar end, staff from the school are often invited to attend relevant PGS professional development courses.

Also at the table are two group members who modestly class themselves as outsiders but are champions of the partnership as well as eager contributors to the congeniality of the occasion. Ian Grant is managing director of the networking company Making the Connection and was instrumental in setting up the partnership on behalf of Mr Milligan. Ian Ord is the business development director of PGS's corporate communications consultancy, Fifth Ring, and another former pupil of the school. He, too, has supported the project since its inception.

Mr Bryce is firm that the relationship is not about money. "This is not a cap-in-hand enterprise. It's an equal and mutually beneficial partnership, involving the sharing of skills and experience and the joint planning of opportunities to broaden our horizons."

"A project like this has to be something you're willing to be involved with for the long term," Mrs Ferguson says. "Trust has to be built up and it takes time for everyone to understand what is happening and why.

"It requires commitment, enthusiasm and hard work, but the payback is enormous, both in terms of personal satisfaction in building valuable relationships and professional development - important elements of the PGS Our Values statement. And, of course, there is the additional benefit of both organisations raising their profile in the community."

She adds: "I believe we have now become part of the fabric of the school and the school is part of the fabric of our company. We have already passed the original three years milestone and we have every intention of continuing the relationship well into the future."

Mr Grant believes that a keen interest on the part of the pupils, energy and commitment from the school and company staff, and strong bonds between the participating youngsters and adults have been core to the partnership's success.

"It's always hard to evaluate a programme like this, but the anecdotal feedback is very positive. The kids are keen to speak about the new experiences they're being exposed to and you can see their confidence soaring as a result. Some PGS individuals have also told me their parenting skills have improved from getting to know the Kincorth pupils and the issues important to them," he says.

In considering the partnership's impact on academic performance, Mr Bryce is cautiously optimistic. "We have exceeded our Standard grade and Higher targets and we are certainly on the up and up. I'd hesitate to say it was as a direct result of our relationship with PGS, as there are many other factors within the school that have an influence, but there is no doubt the programme is playing a significant role in raising aspirations and therefore in contributing to the rising attainment levels."

Word of their success has spread. Mr Grant and Mr Ord, having created a workpack based on the Kincorth Academy-PGS Production Services model entitled Adopt A School, have been involved in setting up a long-term partnership between Portlethen Academy and the oil and gas operator Kerr McGee. Mr Grant has also played a similar role in bringing together Westhill Academy and the global marine services company Technip Coflexip and introducing Inverkeithing Academy, in Fife, to the Rosyth engineering firm Babcock. The last partnership was inspired by a PGS business breakfast conversation with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who was keen to see the model replicated in his own constituency, Dunfermline East.

It is now 5pm and the lively gathering draws to a close. "I really look forward to these meetings," Mr Bryce confides. "At four o'clock, after a busy school day, they're never a chore. I always come out feeling refreshed and energised, because the experience is so positive."

For details of the Adopt a School workpack, contact Ian Grant, Making the Connection, tel 01224 749977For more on the Kincorth Academy-PGS Production Services partnership, contact headteacher Hugh Bryce, tel 01224 872881, or Louise Ferguson, tel 01224 247075

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