Water diviners

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Pupils design a distribution network for life's essential ingredient. Susan MacDonald finds out how they met a challenge set by Thames Water

In the early 1990s, the new idea of businesses forming links with schools caused controversy. Today such partnerships are an integral part of education - so much so that government not only sanctions them but is funding them and indeed trying to direct their efforts. This is a partnership that - as John Botten, chairman of the National Education Business Partnerships Network, says - neither side can do without.

"The demographic plates are shifting, the proportion of retired people in the UK population is growing, and those people coming into work are becoming ever more important," he says.

"We need to encourage 500 youngsters into manufacturing and engineering every year for the next ten years if we are to keep pace with the growing numbers exiting the workplace, and that means we have to invest in a national skills strategy."

Businesses are playing their different parts. Liz Clutton, npower's education officer, is proud that the energy company's interactive approach means it reached an estimated 15,000 children last year. Its programme, designed for key stages 1 to 4 and adult basic skills, talks about energy in general and about the work of the company itself.

Nothing wrong with promoting the type of work that companies are involved in and the work their employees do, Mr Botten says. Indeed, he and the Government feel it is essential that children link the work they are doing in school with the work they will be doing when they leave education.

Other employers have opted for a face-to-face approach. Pat Smith, business in the community liaison officer for HM Revenue and Customs in Portsmouth, says that since their volunteer employees started to work with schools last year the feedback has been fantastic.

"Employees say their jobs have been enriched and their enthusiasm fired," she says. "When at one school it was announced at assembly that the Inland Revenue were coming, the children cheered - not a reaction that we would normally generate - and we find students are eager to know how they can get a job with us, and that helps recruitment."

Thames Water transmits its message on the importance of water worldwide through an interactive and a face-to-face programme. Without a doubt, says Tony Denton, its local government and community affairs manager, it is the company's Network Challenge that is the one that students most enjoy.

Developed by Thames Water engineers, this award-winning educational resource sets key stage 4 pupils in Hounslow to compete to design, build and commission a water distribution network. They are faced with real-life problems such as environmental concerns and social and economic issues as they struggle to construct their network of pipes, manage their budgets and stay within deadlines.

Mr Denton's enthusiasm knows no bounds as he describes how last year Network Challenge went international. Working with the British Council, they set up a link between students of the same age from schools in London and Shanghai by organising exchange visits between the two cities. Children from both countries were mixed together to form two teams.

"It was great to see children from two cultures working on one project, and it opened up a wealth of research," he says. "Pupils spent a day in each other's schools. The Chinese were amazed that children here could discuss and even disagree with teachers, while English pupils realised that, in Chinese schools, it was the teachers not the children who moved from class to class.

"Next stop a possible link up between Berlin and London," he says beginning to sound more like a teacher than a company executive.

Mr Botten says that companies don't have to be big to make a difference. In fact, the largest source of pupil work experience comes from smaller businesses, which take in 600,000 students a year.

"We used to think that working with schools was just a social obligation, and some of the work done was pretty marginal, but now we realise its importance for both."

Education business partnerships involve collaboration with teachers. John Hill, head at Coleraine Park primary school in Haringey, north London, is one of those who thoroughly approves.

"I think that it is a wonderful way for management teachers to see how business management works," he says. "A colleague of mine was invited to spend a day with the manager of a high street clothing store. As they started off on a tour of the store, both agreed that they did a daily walk about as part of their management techniques.

"Soon they found a pair of knickers lying on the floor and the head automatically bent to pick them up. But the manager stopped her, saying that this was where their management techniques differed.

"They stood by the knickers and soon a floor manager came over, saw what was happening and stood with them. Then an assistant came over, picked up the knickers and hung them up. The manager said that a leader does not do other people's work but allows them to do it.

"It's an amusing tale," says Mr Hill, "but useful - too many schools still have senior teachers picking up knickers - doing other teachers' work rather than concentrating on being leaders."

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