Industry helps to harness innovation

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Business people can't run schools but they can make them work more productively, says Douglas Osler.

Recently ministers and the Scottish Executive's education department were criticised for suggesting that business sponsors might help in regenerating schools, particularly in areas where achievement was low and job prospects few. The usual detractors emerged to suggest that business people running schools was a bad idea; they were quite right but that was not what was being suggested. There is no reason why the aims of investors should be any different from the public interest. Industry needs successful schools and one of the tests of an education system is whether its products are employable.

As with any new idea, it is best to be in at the beginning and shape it to what you want. Businessmen take advice. That's how they are successful at what they do. They will take enlightened education advice too. All too often, there is a good idea that goes nowhere because there is no sponsorship to refine and spread the idea. That is where this innovation could be influential. Scottish educational history is full of innovative projects on short-term funding and their legacy was lost.

Over the past few years, one of my better contacts has been with Strathclyde University's summer academy. In my early days as an inspector, I had a car registration with the letters SAS which caused some alarm in schools - so perhaps that's why I was intrigued by S@S, that is, the Summer Academy at Strathclyde. It brings together more than 900 young people from 13 local authorities involving 130 schools. The youngsters are at the end of S3 and each group spends two weeks being challenged in familiar and new contexts.

Programmes like this have to be demanding and time-consuming to keep the attention, and attendance, of youngsters on their holidays. But it happens.

Years ago, 14 pupils from an Edinburgh high school in a difficult community agreed to attend a university summer school and were told on the last day of term to be at the bus stop three Tuesdays hence sometime in late July.

They were all there. Strathclyde gets them to turn up and keep coming. They have a good time and when their two weeks ends they want to know why they can't come back the following year. They are challenged to raise their sights and the experiment's track record in tackling low esteem is proven.

The programme is sophisticated, well planned and efficiently delivered. The purposefulness of its leaders is impressive. It provides a unique "challenge curriculum" in which the young students are set tasks which become more difficult as the two weeks progress, doing wonders for self-confidence by giving them settings in which they can achieve. In addition, there is recreation, creative work and visits to other parts of the university campus and business venues. Much of what they do demonstrates the relevance of learning and subtly reminds them that learning and working are linked.

The final day of each two-week academy is a graduation, attended by parents and friends. This is another important recognition of individual achievement.

The presence of the academy on the university campus is important too.

These youngsters see university as an unlikely but desirable goal, a place that they know little or nothing about. The two-week academy changes their attitude, making university a familiar and accessible place. Courses are staffed by carefully selected student mentors. Some are still studying but others have completed their degrees and are about to start jobs. As a team, they are a powerful influence on the school students who see them as the kind of people they want to become. The effect on the pupils of the course is obvious to visitors. They may not yet be ready to put into words how they think they have benefited but the mentors are.

Some of the mentors have been academy students in earlier years. One told me about her difficulties with Standard grade maths at the end of S3. She came on the academy, was in the group that won the maths challenge and never looked back. Another mentor felt she wasn't getting through to a surly 14-year-old; on day three, he didn't turn up so she thought he had dropped out. Then the door burst open to reveal the boy apologising for being late. He had missed the bus and gone to his mother's work for a lift.

His mother gave him hell but he wanted to be there. A challenge passed - for the mentor and the boy.

S@S is an example of pertinent vision, real challenge, inspired planning and demonstrable results. It is a phenomenal success. The pupils develop socially and intellectually and gain many skills, including confidence, communication and presentation. The evidence shows that they perform in the following session up to twice the national average and well ahead of previous expectations.

Some 70 per cent of students attribute a determination to go on to further or higher education to the academy. The effects of the academy experience are carefully researched and documented. It is not surprising that this approach to learning is gaining international attention.

This is an experience that should be made available across Scotland. It also has elements that belong in the school session, not only in the holidays. If this was the kind of innovation which could be extended because business people took an interest in schools, that would be an entirely beneficial development. And why can't the youngsters who have gained so much come back the following year? Well, the answer is obvious but they could be helped to continue both the benefits and the networking with their group by the setting up of a Virtual Academy. Are there any sponsors out there?

Perhaps there should be a more considered reaction to the involvement of business in education and more attention to where it could be most effective. After all, digging for facts is better mental exercise than rushing to conclusions.

Douglas Osler is former head of the education inspectorate.

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