A question of contacts
Bob Bell, assistant head at the 900-pupil Pool school and community college in Redruth, Cornwall, knows the ropes as well as anyone. The culture of linking with employers is entrenched. Staff, from the science to the art department, are made aware of the importance of building contacts - and using them. It has led to links with, among others, the Newlyn art gallery and firms with a science-based business. Few Cornish schools have a wider range of contacts.
But agency partnerships are important too. "We do a number of activities with the local education action zone," says Mr Bell. The Government created the zones in 1998 with extra cash to bring together local schools, business and community interests to raise standards and regenerate the economy.
For Pool school, extra resources brought quick dividends. "We have a business mentoring programme involving 20 employers and youngsters in Year 11. They get together monthly either at school or at the employer's and discuss organising time and study skills."
There is also a close link with the education business partnership (EBP), an umbrella group fostering business links with schools and colleges.
"One example is our enterprise days," says Mr Bell. "The EBP brings employers into school and students have to design and market something - then make a presentation in the afternoon."
The partnership plays a wide role arranging work experience for Years 10 and 11, developing links between education and business and arranging placements for teachers in businesses. It also manages the local authority's careers education which dovetails with Connexions, the advice and guidance service for 13 to 19-year-olds. "We make sure business is involved in designing activities within the curriculum," says David Smith, the careers manager .
Tom Whitworth, operations director for Connexions in Devon and Cornwall, says his organisation "tries to bring young people together with opportunities" - a job shared with EBPs.
"We have representatives in every school and FE college who talk to people in Year 11. We aim to identify young people, pre-16, who don't know what they want to do or who are simply going to get a job."
Connexions also deals with the local learning and skills council. A relatively new player on the scene, it is one of 47 such councils for England with the role of rationalising post-16 education and training and helping develop the 14-19 curriculum.
Connexions must point out to the LSC where there is a lack of provision for work-based learning. "We support modern apprenticeships - helping where some young people have been in the wrong placements, or getting them to wherever they need to go," says Mr Whitworth.
With so many agencies offering support, it is essential to understand what each has to offer, says Mr Bell. Schools like his have learned to grasp any chance of work experience they can get - work that will give their pupils a foot on the employment ladder.
Cornwall's former tin mining heartland around Camborne and Redruth has spent much time in the economic doldrums. In terms of business, it is fragmented: the small employer is the norm. But its action zone status since 1999 helped forge valuable alliances according to the zone's work-related team leader, Alan Rowling.
"This is the most deprived area of Cornwall," he said. "Historically, it has had higher unemployment and lower income than the rest of the county - probably the lowest in the far south west.
"The EAZ will run until 2004. It works well - I think it is based very firmly on the successful partnerships we have developed - we work very well with the local education authority. We have a strong work tie with the EBP - many of our projects are run jointly. From our point of view, the most important partners are our business partners - around 500 are involved in offering work experience."
Best practice evolved through the partnership and zone is being extended outside the EAZ. When its cash runs out, it will be replaced by LEA-funded "Excellence Clusters" covering 30 schools, including primaries.
Kate Whetter, Cornwall's EBP education projects manager, makes a point of meeting businesses "so they feel comfortable with what they are doing", she says. "A lot of our employers have been impressed with the people who go out into work experience."
The Cornwall experience proves that no one size fits all - initiatives can come from any organisation. Other partners with Pool school include the not-for-profit education trust Young Enterprise, through which last year the school drew in business mentors to help with entrepreneurial projects such as its on-site stationery shop. And, through a local organisation of small businesses called the Hub, the school has a website designer visiting weekly to offer expertise. Bob Bell at Pool school reckons this gave his pupils an early advantage in the job stakes. "Our network has built up over the years," said Mr Bell. "If at first we can't find someone to fit our requirements, we'll know somebody who'll know where to go."
Young Enterprise also works with disaffected youngsters in Years 10 and 11 through xl Network, which aims to teach them about the world of work, how to set up in business, and arranges extended placements. Special advisers with xl Network also offer youth service and special needs support.
Generally, local schools recognise that education-business understanding is a two way street. There is a fund of local organisations offering local support. But teachers admit it is not always an easy jungle to find their way through.