Support for tomorrow's workforce

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Even primary schools are getting plenty of help from big companies, investing in future customers and workers, reports Elaine Carlton.

PRIMARY schools across the country are receiving growing support from businesses keen to play a part in young people's education. Firms large and small, national and local, are prepared to support their local communities.

The key to the developing links between schools and businesses is a number of organisations, some funded by government, others by charitable foundations and companies, that put schools and businesses in touch with each other to work on projects such as literacy.

"Business is still a largely untapped resource," says Rowzat Tayebkham at Business in the Community (BITC), itself funded by companies. "Often businesses want to help in the community but they don't know how to arrange a scheme which uses their employees' time in an effective way. Some companies want to get involved because it's good for their image. Others just want to help. Companies have realised that if they don't help now they won't get the workforce or the customers in 20 years' time."

Walkers, the crisps and snack food giant, is one company that has recently become involved in primary literacy. With the help of BITC, Walkers is providing more than 70 staff to act as mentors in 20 schools. Its employees will spend half an hour a week in schools listening to children reading.

So far the scheme, which started in October, is just a pilot. Walkers has provided national curriculum reading books for schools, reading diaries - so children can keep a note of practice they do with their parents at home - and mentors in its chosen schools. The company's aim is to tackle literacy problems in deprived communities and to test whether its three-pronged attack on primary literacy can work.

The job of BITC is to find companies that want to get involved and give them programme ideas based on successful practice. On a local level, however, it often hands over the practical arrangements to the Education Business Partnerships within its network of contacts.

Ms Tayebkham says: "If a school is interested in finding a business to support its literacy programme, then its first port of call should be the local EBP."

She warns however that both schools and businesses involved need to have a flexible approach. "We tell businesses that they must commit for two terms, but the volunteers can take it in turns like a job-share."

"The schools, on the other hand, cannot expect the businesses to release their employees at any time. Ultimately, it is about a partnership between the two."

Since 1991, Community Service Volunteers (CSV) has also been working to create similar partnerships between businesses and schools. Margaret Burden, one of its co-ordinators, says that as long as the programme is clear and structured the volunteer partnership should prove a success. She says: "Schools are very keen to involve volunteers in their work to tackle core skills."

CSV usually approaches the employer before contacting the school, but sometimes the school just seeks help, says Ms Burden. Businesses have to commit their staff for one hour a week for six weeks and then there is a review to see if the scheme is working. Marks Spencer, the Financial Times and employees from the Department of Education and Employment have been brought into schools by CSV.

Now the CSV is about to launch a new literacy campaign, training 7,000 students over three years to work alongside teachers in the classroom. It is seeking 10 companies to become its literacy partners and fund the scheme which will cost Pounds 200,000 a year for three years.

Volunteer Reading Help (VRH) is another organisation which encourages primary schools' literacy programmes by providing outside support.

Director Charles Martineau is keen for businesses to sign up, but stresses that his programme runs along strict guidelines.

"We target children who are under-achieving at school but volunteers must be prepared to commit themselves for half an hour twice a week," he says. "Often the problem is that children won't read rather than can't read. They need to be given confidence and the volunteer becomes a surrogate parent for a year. "

Through the VRH programme, the brewing group Whitbread has sent 10 of its employees to read with children in a primary school in Knowsley, Merseyside.

To ensure its programme is working, pupils' reading levels are tested at the beginning and end of term and teachers are asked to give their views.

"We are gently encouraging businesses to join in, but these companies need to be active and keen," says Mr Martineau. "These are often children who have been let down and they must not be let down again, so we often advise employees to do our three-part preparation as apre-retirement course."

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