Come together

4th February 2005 at 00:00
In the home of the Beatles, one school is adapting the traditional house system to business, reports Martin Whittaker

Name: New Heys community school, Liverpool

School type: 11-19. comprehensive and business and enterprise specialist college

Pupils on roll: 1,040

Proportion eligible for free school meals: 39 per cent

Improved results: 20 per cent of students gained five grade Cs or better at GCSE in 2001, rising to 29 per cent in 2003, but fallingto 25 per cent last year

Liverpool is transforming itself as it prepares to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. Since it won the bid 18 months ago, the city centre has become a building site, with new pavements laid and grand old buildings spruced up.

Official figures forecast that 2008 will bring 1.7 million extra visitors flooding in and create 14,000 jobs - many in the hospitality and leisure sector.

In a Liverpool suburb, one secondary is helping its students to meet the city's skills shortage with an innovative house system that links it with employers.

New Heys community school splits students into five houses, each sponsored and supported by a local business.

Its aim is to give students and teachers insights into the needs of local employers, to improve young people's job prospects and to develop work-related learning.

"Many of the firms who come into the regeneration area have targets to meet in terms of employing local people," says deputy head Ann Stahler. "They were having problems meeting those because they found that some local people didn't have the skills they were looking for."

New Heys school is a comprehensive of 1,040 students. Although it is in the relatively affluent suburb of Allerton, its students mostly come from disadvantaged areas such as Toxteth, Speke and Garston.Nearly 40 per cent are eligible for free school meals.

Ofsted declared the school to be "satisfactory and improving" in 2001, although the proportion of students getting five grade Cs or better at GCSE is way below the national average.

Results had been improving but dipped last year, though this was anticipated and related to last year's cohort, says acting head Pam Foy.

She insists results will bounce back and points to a huge improvement in vocational subjects such as business studies.

The school is now a specialist business college, but its partnerships with employers go back to 1999, when Phil Duffy was the head. It began a Young Managers programme, helped by the local education action zone, to give Year 9 students business experience. Staff went out and literally knocked on the doors of local companies to recruit them. Now 100 Year 9s from New Heys are on the programme.

And long before Liverpool won the culture bid, the school's catchment area was undergoing a transformation, with major employers such as Capital Bank and Marriott Hotels moving in.

The school began its new House Business scheme in September 2003. It is a traditional house system, mixing all age groups. Every student and teacher is allocated a house and there are sports competitions and merit awards.

But the difference at New Heys is backing from local employers. Each house is linked to a business partner: Capital Bank, Jaguar, Marriott Hotels Resorts, New Mersey Shopping Park, and Scottish Power. Each house also has a teacher who acts as theco-ordinator between it and its business partner.

Activities include the firms contributing to lessons and student visits to the companies to support their learning.

The partnership with Marriott Hotels has proved particularly fruitful. A programme called the Marriott academy allows sixth-formers from New Heys and other local schools to take vocational qualifications, such as NVQs in customer service, health and hygiene and first aid.

Last year a dozen students spent two days a week training at the Marriott hotel. Every one was ultimately offered a job.

Another scheme called Languages for Life gives GCSE languages students the opportunity to practise their pronunciation in a real-life setting. They check into the hotel and have to converse with "staff" (played by language teachers) in French, including ordering food and drink and reporting problems with their room.

The partnership has also allowed the school to develop its work experience for Year 10s. This year the school and Marriott are piloting a two-week work experience programme, but with students working in a group.

Ann Stahler says: "We have done a lot of national conferences, and the thing that's making teachers sit up and listen is this idea that we have something that is the driver. The House Business system is the thing on which we hook everything."

But isn't there a danger that this approach, linking education so closely with the demands of the local labour market, will limit career choices for young people, channelling them into jobs Liverpool wants them to have?

The school's leadership argues that the benefits are far wider than filling the skills gap in hospitality and leisure, and the firms' involvement is greater than sponsoring sports kit, or sticking a company logo on pencil cases.

Acting head Pam Foy says business input is also having a positive affect on academic subjects as well as vocational ones, and helps more able pupils.

"We're not wanting to make all young people follow a business course. We offer and deliver enterprise education and business awareness through other subjects as well.

"The whole point of our partnership with business is that it's a vehicle through which we are able to raise aspirations and improve the employability of our students but, crucially, raise standards across the school."

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