Suits rise to challenge of school ties

I recently had to do a piece of work that involved trawling through the educational archives of the 1980s. Suddenly, reading about Kenneth Baker and the SDP and the beginning of the curtailment of local education authorities, the flavour of those days came flooding back.

However, if you had a child in school in London back then, you never really forget it - all that heart-stopping anxiety about whether school would actually happen or not.

Would there be a strike? If there wasn't, would there be a teacher available to take the class? Or would you be trailing back home at nine o'clock in the morning with a disconsolate child, and your day in chaos, because the teacher was absent and there was no supply cover to be found?

Then there were the PTA meetings, shot through with political correctness. God forbid that anyone should suggest raising money from the local community to support the school. It was the Government's job to fund all schools, fully and equally, and that was that. There were people at those meetings who would rather have had their teeth pulled with pliers than accept as much as a second-hand tea urn from a neighbouring business.

I was remembering all this as I sat on a bus heading out through the City one lunchtime, past dealersin their distinctive jackets pouring out of the London International Financial Futures Exchange, and then on past the sweat-shops off the Commercial Road, and that - always-startling - switch from one part of London to another made me think about how east London schools are now drumming up help from their neighbours in the City and Docklands.

How times change. Back in the bad old 1980s, some schools in this part of London were such hotbeds of hard-Left activism that you would have been foolish even to whisper the words "merchant bank" anywhere near a playground gate. I have a particularly vivid memory of being shoved up against a wall by members of this Neanderthal tendency with the threat that they were going to "get me, or get my kid" for something I'd written that they didn't much care for.

Today, the climate has changed so much that over the past few years something like Pounds 5 million has been transferred from sponsors such as the Stock Exchange into neighbouring schools.

But when I went back to read up on this, a different statistic altogether jumped off the page. I rang Gillian Fletcher of Clifford Chance, the City law firm, to see if it could possibly be true. Sixty people from her firm, I said, were now going regularly into a local primary school to help? Sixty? Were Pounds 200-an-hour lawyers queuing up outside classroom doors for their turn to hear reading?

Oh no, she said, not 60. No, it must be quite a few more than that by now.

All kinds of people volunteered, she said, from one of the partners down to lawyers, trainees, library staff, secretaries, and computer people - and they loved it. Hardly anyone had dropped out since the scheme started, and lots of people said it was the high point of their week. It was a chance to escape the rarified atmosphere of the City and take on a different kind of challenge. And the school we go to is such "an exceptional, wonderful place".

I've no doubt that the school - Shapla - is very good. But can it be that exceptional? Or is it that people who are unused to being in primary schools, and who know about education only from what they read in the papers, feel so enriched - as visitors always do - by stepping through the door of a lively school, and are so committed to children they have given time to and got to know, that their enthusiasm fires them to superlatives?

Teachers, used to the company of children and young people, often don't realise what colourful, warm places schools seem to people who drive desks and answer phones for a living, just as, used to criticism, they don't realise that throwing open their classroom doors is more likely to conjure appreciation than opprobrium from those who walk in.

Since The TES first reported on Clifford Chance's involvement in education earlier this year, the firm has featured on a local television news bulletin and at least a dozen other companies have come forward as a result to ask how to set up such partnerships.

They're proliferating in the City, and spreading beyond it, and good luck to them. Because if we are ever to create the kind of learning-conscious environment that the Labour party recently outlined in its plans to jack up national reading standards, we are going to need as many people as possible involved with, and committed to, the success of schools and children.

Of course volunteerism is no way to run an education system. All the central planks - the teachers, the targets, the money - must be in place first. But it is a perfectly good way to cement a society together and, if your aim is to change the culture, then you have to look a long way beyond just teachers and parents.

And it is not pie in the sky to suggest that large numbers of other people could be motivated. In some countries, school-business partnerships are so common that young corporate high-fliers take time out to train as tutors as part of their career-building strategy. School authorities run offices to match up senior citizens with junior ones, and volunteers staff after-school reading schemes and night-time homework helplines.

Meanwhile, in this country, there is an enormous pool of untapped potential - retired people, the unemployed, part-timers and full-timers - who are un-enriched and un-informed by what offering such help would give back to them and then feed out into the wider community.

But if Clifford Chance can get3 per cent of its staff on board at the very first trawl, when, as Gillian Fletcher is the first to point out, City lawyers are not exactly known for their benevolence and altruism, "there must be lots of other people out there who would be perfectly willing to make time, too".

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