A pilot Scottish Vocational Qualification scheme is taking business people back to school. Judy Mackie reports on the scheme's two-way benefits.
When Alistair Inglis, a car dealer from Montrose in Angus, bumped into his former maths teacher at a social event five years ago, he little realised the reunion would lead him back to school. But John Brown, then an assistant headteacher at Mearns Academy, a rural secondary school in Laurencekirk, Aberdeenshire, gave an excellent sales pitch for his school. As a result, Mr Inglis's company has become a valued associate, working closely with school staff and students.
Mr Inglis is one of many business people throughout Britain who give up their time to pass on the benefits of their experience to pupils. In most cases, this teaching takes place in an ad-hoc manner. In Scotland, though, the Scottish Qualifications Authority is taking steps to formalise the relationships, offering business people the chance to gain a Scottish Vocational Qualification in Education Business Partnership. The award, which would be assessed and administered by schools, represents a formal recognition of the time and effort put into the business education of young people, and sets criteria for standards of involvement.
Around 20 schools and associated businesses from each education-business partnership area are taking part in a national pilot scheme for the award. Mr Inglis welcomes its introduction. "I was wary at first, because I'm not looking for any formal recognition for my involvement," he says. "But now I realise the award is more than a thank-you. It has to be achieved."
Mr Inglis's company, Duthie Son, offers fourth-year pupils placements each year. But this is only part of his involvement. He spends a lot of time at the schoolhelping on a variety of projects.
His diary reveals a busy programme of events: at the school's annual equal opportunities conference in February, he gave a presentation and led one of the seminars. During the Understanding Industry course each year, he shares his entrepreneurial experiences and takes the role of a bank manager to whom pupils have to present business plans.
Last year, he was one of two business advisers involved in Young Enterprise, the scheme that promotes mini-businesses and activities among pupils and students. And most recently, he has been involved in a problem-solving project in which students have worked on real-life challenges facing local companies. Two groups of third-year pupils were asked to find the most cost-effective and successful way of marketing Citro n's latest car, the Xsara. They formed rival consultancy firms which had to make presentations to Mr Inglis.
"Working with businesses boosts the pupils' confidence, and it's great to see them develop skills that will help them succeed in the workplace," he says.
Scott Strachan, a consultant in Inverness, is known in local schools as the man who can spice up Industrial Awareness finance sessions at the flick of a switch. Manager of the area office of accountants Coopers Lybrand, he has developed his own spreadsheet game, which introduces pupils to the highs and lows of profit and loss accounting.
"They have to pretend they are on the board of a car company and make decisions about expenditure based on profit estimates. They really get their teeth into it, and, among other things, learn that keeping easily-accessible financial records is vital for making crucial business decisions," he explains.
He has been Involved with schools since 1990 and feels his own professional and personal development has benefited. "Increasingly my job involves giving presentations to a peer audience," he says. "Standing up in class and talking about my work has helped build my confidence.
Robert Paton's mixed memories of school have done nothing to blight his interest in developing strong ties between his hairdressing business in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde and local schools. "I left secondary school after three years - the school was happy with that and so was I. But today's young people need all the help they can get to prepare themselves for the outside world. I want to do as much as possible to see that those in our area have the chance to realise their full potential."
Running two local companies - Hairdressing International and A1 Plumbing - he is in an ideal position to do just that. Over the past eight years, he and his 25 staff have built up a relationship with five local schools, each of which requires a different level of involvement.
At Greenock High, he has helped organise business presentation days. At Port Glasgow High he has led industrial awareness courses, advising on the importance of teamwork. He is regularly involved in one-to-one tutorials with young people who are underachieving, and offers fourth-year pupils hairdressing work-experience placements. "The activities are developing all the time, which is good, because we learn from past experiences and improve on them for the next time," he says.
Mr Paton is well-known at St Stephen's High School, Port Glasgow. The assistant headteacher, Jean MacMillan, praises his contribution. "A few months ago he organised and chaired a day in which some of our former students returned to share their experiences of further and higher education and employment. It went down very well with the pupils."
Despite its name, Vesuvius UK in Ayrshire has a far from fiery relationship with its school neighbours. Irene MacCafferty, quality assurance and training manager of the company, which makes containers for the steel and foundry industries, says: "We've been involved with schools in the Irvine Valley for several years. The success of our own and other companies rests on quality, and we want to make sure our future workforce has the skills to keep standards high. Working with schools is also good for staff development as managers and design engineers gain valuable experience in making presentations and planning projects."
Ms MacCafferty and some of her colleagues have also formed ties with the staff and pupils of Loudoun Academy, Galston, where they have participated in Understanding Industry courses and have tested a module on teamwork as part of a two-day conference for senior pupils. "We want to build on our links with Loudoun," she says. A qualification that formalises the activity is bound to be of interest.