'Magnificently chaotic tapestry' that links schools and business

28th March 2008 at 00:00
When the two work constructively side by side, the results are stunning, writes David Marley

In the words of its headteacher, Castle Vale School in the east of Birmingham is in a "Neet hotspot".

Until three years ago many 16-year-olds left the school, which serves a deprived white working-class estate, to become part of the group classed as Not in Education, Employment or Training (Neets).

But Clive Owen, the headteacher, says the pupils' fortunes have been turned around by the school forging strong links with local businesses. Since a construction training centre was set up at the school, the proportion of leavers joining the Neet ranks has fallen from 10 per cent to 3 per cent.

"Our business links and good vocational qualifications keep young people in school and give them a path to progress when they leave," said Mr Owen. "Our company links are incredibly valuable."

If Gordon Brown has his way, these are the kinds of link that every school in the country will benefit from. The Prime Minister wants all schools to have a business partner to help raise standards, improve skills and boost aspirations.

The idea fits neatly into the Every Child Matters agenda for young people to achieve "economic wellbeing", which says they should be ready to start a job.

Shortly before becoming Prime Minister, Mr Brown established the National Council for Educational Excellence, with big-hitting business names asked to shape education policy.

And earlier this month Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, called on companies to follow the lead of banks helping primary school pupils who struggle with maths.

But the national council's adviser on making partnerships between business and education work has given a stark warning that there is considerable work to do if the policy is to succeed.

Julia Cleverdon, former chief executive of Business in the Community, has drawn up a plan that she will present to the council next month. She will say there needs to be a much better idea of what is needed from businesses and a new system for organising partnerships.

"We have got to be very clear what we want business to do, otherwise they end up running ridiculous essay competitions which do not relate to the business or the curriculum," she said.

"There also needs to be better brokerage of the relationships between companies and schools. If we don't improve that, you can kiss goodbye to the idea that we can develop any of this. At the moment, it's a magnificently chaotic tapestry and the funding is patchy to say the least."

Schools are sometimes guilty of not putting out the welcome mat to business, Mrs Cleverdon said. Work needs to be done to make partnerships more sustainable so they do not fall into a "launch, lunch and logo" mindset. And schemes do not cover large parts of the country.

Data from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust shows that schools can struggle to raise the pound;50,000 from business sponsors they need to enable them to gain specialist status.

Almost 400 schools have been given money by the trust's Partnership Fund, having shown that, despite extensive efforts, they have been unable to secure money from business partners. Mike Goodfellow, the trust's head of community programmes, which helps find sponsors, said rural schools have suffered most. While city schools can easily call on local firms, their rural cousins need to be more innovative to reap the same rewards.

Despite difficulties building partnerships on a national scale, individual schools have made gains with the help of businesses. Such partnerships can be particularly useful for schools in disadvantaged areas where economic prospects for pupils are bleak. Deptford Green School in south-east London, where half the pupils are eligible for free school meals, an established indicator of deprivation, has a long-standing relationship with UBS bank, which provides mentors and funds a parent outreach worker and citizenship projects.

Peter Campling, Deptford Green's headteacher, said mentoring had been particularly important as a way to raise aspirations and to prepare them for work.

"It has a huge impact on our pupils," he said. "Building these relationships opens up a whole new world for them, which is not going to happen through the mainstream curriculum."

"Some of our pupils grow up very close to the City of London, but have never been there. Being mentored and going to these companies gives students a sense of being part of society, which is very valuable."

Since 2005, the Government has provided pound;60 million a year for enterprise education in secondary schools, which will continue until at least 2011. The Prime Minister has supported the idea since his days as Chancellor, when he put money into providing enterprise opportunities for pupils in deprived areas.

From this September, in a bid to prepare pupils further for their financial futures, secondary schools will begin teaching economic wellbeing and financial capability to 11- to 16-year olds. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority expects the new programme, which includes lessons on budgeting and credit cards, to be taught in PSHE classes alongside careers education.

Mr Balls has been championing financial capability lessons since his days as Economic Secretary to the Treasury. But concerns have been raised about teachers' knowledge and readiness to teach it.

Sarah Smart, development manager with the PSHE Association, said: "Of all aspects of PSHE, personal finance is the one most teachers have expressed concern about. We are working to provide support."

Alan Vincent, general secretary of the Association for Careers Education and Guidance, whose members include PSHE teachers, said staff welcomed the new curriculum but were worried they had not been properly prepared to deliver it.

"There has not been much training," he said. "Some feel threatened and uncertain about teaching it."

An Ofsted report published this month criticised the quality of personal finance education. Where it works well, schools give pupils days off the timetable to take part in investment competitions and other hands-on activities. But inspectors found that topics related to families on low incomes - a key issue for Every Child Matters - were often ignored. Teachers' subject knowledge was sometimes lacking and there were pressures on curriculum time, said inspectors.

Miriam Rosen, Ofsted's director of education, said that financial education could have a significant impact on the future prosperity of school children.

"If our recommendations are acted upon, we believe students will have a far greater chance of managing their money and avoiding debt in years to come," she said.


For young people to achieve the main aims of the economic-wellbeing strand of Every Child Matters, they must:

- engage in further education, employment or training on leaving school;

- be ready for employment;

- live in decent homes and sustainable communities;

- have access to transport and material goods; and

- live in households free of poverty.

Schools are expected to:

- help prepare 11- to 19-year-olds for working life;

- deliver 14-19 education in a co-ordinated way and ensure that education and training for 16- to 19-year-olds is of good quality;

- help looked-after children and young people achieve economic wellbeing;

- minimise the financial stress on families of childhood activities, such as the cost of school trips; and

- provide flexible choices that young people can review and revise.

The Government's targets and indicators include:

- the percentage of 16- to 18-year-olds not in education, employment and training (Neet);

- the numbers of 18- to 30-year-olds participating in higher education;

- the amount of good-quality social housing;

- cleaner, safer and greener public spaces and the quality of the built environment in deprived areas; and

- the stock and take-up of childcare for all families.

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