Julia Cleverdon (above), boss of BITC, wants industry to do its bit to motivate pupils, from sending businessmen into schools to teach, to sponsoring schemes such as artists in residence. She talks to Biddy Passmore
Headteachers can breathe a sigh of relief. Julia Cleverdon is no longer worried about leadership. "Five years back I was so worried about heads and the enormous task they faced, without enough support," says the chief executive of Business in the Community (BITC). "But it's not an issue now." If that is so, it is largely because the forceful Cleverdon turned her worry into a scheme - Partners in Leadership - that has been widely hailed as a success. The scheme has so far twinned 6,500 heads with local business leaders, giving each partner a fresh outlook on their activities and spawning quite a few friendships.
"It's done more to help business people change their understanding of education than anything else," she says. An inner London primary head may horrify her merchant banking twin by revealing that she spends less on books than his bank does on flowers. But she will impress him with the range of her responsibilities.
This is one of the schemes that have played a big part in bringing together two elements now recognised as vital to any community: business and education. Twenty years ago, when education business partnerships (and BITC) were set up, the two sides viewed each other with a suspicion often bordering on contempt. School-leavers couldn't read and write, growled business; we're not here to produce fodder for your production lines, replied schools.
Today, while business still moans about skills, the two sides have far closer levels of contact and mutual understanding. Through such schemes as Right to Read and Number Partners, business volunteers go in to schools - and discover for themselves how hard it can be to master the 3Rs.
"I'm proud that companies now think that basic skills in primaries is a key area that it's right they should be engaged in," she says. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, you wouldn't have found any who thought that. You might have found Penguin biscuits showing children round a factory but that's about all.
"Now, you cannot walk through the schools of Tower Hamlets without, for instance, tumbling over 97 reading volunteers from Merrill Lynch at Osmani primary school."
She is "having a conversation with the Government" at the moment to ensure that the emphasis on 14 to 19 does not pull the plug on these links with primaries.
Cleverdon is perhaps most enthusiastic of all about Teach First. Modelled on the US scheme Teach for America, it puts high-flying new graduates into tough, inner London secondary schools for two years. The scheme came about when a senior figure from McKinsey's , a member of BITC, summoned 50 inner London secondary heads and asked what big problem they had on which business had so far made no impact. The answer was lack of staff: if the Antipodean supply teachers went home, the headteachers said, they would have to run up the white flag.
Now, 1,100 of the brightest graduates in subjects such as maths and science are taking part. The first cohort of 400 will finish their first two years this summer.
"Will they stay in teaching or will they follow the call of the Porsche?"
wonders Cleverdon. But she quickly adds that, even if these high-fliers leave teaching, the effect of their two years' experience will have been profound and long-lasting, on the schools, themselves and their companies.
BITC has plans to extend the idea to Manchester but stresses the need to maintain quality - and to pilot it carefully before making it mainstream.
Business in the Community, set up in 1982, has 750 leading companies signed up to its vision of inspiring business to make a more positive impact on society. Its president is the Prince of Wales, although it is not part of the Prince's Trust. It is based in London, as are many of its members, but its impact extends throughout the country, working through education-business partnerships.
When we meet, in her light but tiny office overlooking Regent's Canal in Hackney, Cleverdon is briefly touching base during a whistlestop regional tour. "We were in Liverpool last night and Nottingham the night before," she says. "And it's Birmingham next Tuesday."
She is in the middle of attending 11 regional events leading up to the organisation's national gala awards dinner at the Royal Albert Hall next Tuesday. But even when duty makes heavy demands, her energy and enthusiasm just do not flag. At the drop of a question, she will talk liberally about "marvellous" schemes she has seen - teenagers transformed by making barbed wire in Sheffield or testing brakes with rubber tyres in Chippenham - and the "inspirational" businessmen and teachers she has met.
Cleverdon is a diminutive powerhouse who has been working away at links between business and education for more than 20 years, first as director of the Industrial Society's education and inner city division and, since 1992, as head of BITC. She has a way - a combination of charm, wit and determination - that seems to move even the most pin-striped chairman or chief executive to step out from behind his desk and get involved. (They are nearly all men, she laments.) Cleverdon doesn't think the needs of business have changed much in the last 15 or 20 years. "They need people with communication skills - the ability to persuade and explain - who are good at team-work and problem-solving," she says. But she thinks there is still a real need for business to explain its needs and attractions in better ways. The present shortage of scientists may be partly because companies have failed to realise what was happening - or to react fast enough when they did.
But she is opposed to companies adopting a school ("They're not orphans!"
she cries) and thinks a mix of outside influences is best to provide challenge and inspiration.
Her priority now is to get business involved with schools in the areas of greatest social need, as a vital part of community regeneration. It's in the interest of both business and the country's future to raise aspirations, she points out.
She wants to see more work to inspire young people from ethnic minorities too, and wishes she could find more business leaders who were not white, male and "likely to have fought in the Boer Wars".
Her two daughters, by her marriage to the late John Garnett, director of the Industrial Society, sound as if they are doing all they can to support science and the community. The younger one, Victoria, has just completed the first year of a natural science degree at Cambridge (her awestruck mother studied history there). The elder, Charity by name, has completed a degree in geography and environmental science at Edinburgh university, where she was president of the Dirty Weekenders Society. Her mother, mildly curious to find out what that involved, was relieved - but not, one suspects, surprised - to find it was an environmental volunteering programme.