Well schooled in business

10th August 2012 at 01:00
Schools and successful companies are getting better at working together to prepare students for their future careers, as Douglas Blane reports

Getting employers to work closely with schools, and open young people's eyes to the skills they need, is not difficult. The hard part is keeping them engaged, when key individuals move on. It's a problem schools have known about for years.

Renfrewshire might have the answer, said education officer Lisa Blackwood, at a showcase event in Paisley Town Hall last session. "We've formed a partnership with our Chamber of Commerce. It gives us a structure and a systemic approach, to make it sustainable."

Bob Davidson, chief executive of Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce, said: "We're bringing schools and businesses together to help young people into work. I contact our members, explain the partnership and ask who wants to work with schools. About 35 companies have responded so far. Some in a small way, others big style."

The business showcase, attended by 600 second-years formed a central part of the strategy, said Ms Blackwood. "Pupils each chose three employers and sat in on their presentations."

Participating companies ranged from multinationals, such as Hewlett Packard, through national firms with a Renfrewshire presence, like Doosan Babcock.

"I want to work in construction," said Renfrew High pupil Evan Horne. "So the presentation I enjoyed most was by Thales. They showed us a thermal camera that they make. We got lots of information that helped us understand what they do."

The precise but wide-ranging information on offer was what appealed to Renfrew High pupil Verse Abudar, who said: "You learned about whole businesses and the things you'd do in them."

Some came as a surprise. "HP isn't looking for IT specialists," said St Andrew's Academy pupil Caolan Coyle. "They want people in different sectors, like management and administration." At the HP presentation, project manager Gerard Slater told a large group of pupils about the "softer skills" employers seek: "These include being self-driven and organised and having a winning attitude."

As Mr Slater passed the presentation to a colleague, he explained further: "We don't always see these skills straight from school. So we're telling them that simple, practical things, like a firm handshake and being presentable, can make a difference.

"We want pupils to start thinking about soft skills as early as possible. It's news to them that they're what employers want."

Besides hearing directly from the world of business, pupils also got the chance to interact with other organisations, such as Reid Kerr College, the University of Strathclyde, the Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust, and Strathclyde Police and Fire and Rescue services.

Opportunities for young people in any organisation are changing rapidly, said Renfrewshire director of education Robert Naylor. "We want them to know the range and scope of possibilities in the local economy."

Second year is when many young people start to disengage, he said. "That's why we're focusing on that age-group here. We want them to realise there's a purpose in coming to school, so when they leave they'll go on to positive destinations."

Ideally every Renfrewshire second-year would have attended the event. But 11 secondaries would have packed the old town hall to its vaulted ceilings. So each school was asked to select pupils who would benefit, said St Andrew's Academy principal teacher of guidance Tony McGowan.

"We had employers in to talk to the year-group and we work with pupils on their options. Today builds on all that. It's been good for them - and not just the presentations. The speakers at the start were encouraging them to start their own businesses."

That was good to hear, said Renfrew High pupil Lucy Clift: "I want to start a catering company. The Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust gave me loads of information. I've learned a lot."

The event was a success from a teacher's viewpoint, said Frances Dickie, principal teacher of pupil support at Renfrew High. "Second-years can be a tough audience. But they were engaged the whole time. It was very well presented."

Focus-group feedback would help with the next event, said Lisa Blackwood. "This was part of a wider initiative, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and Reid Kerr College, to provide our young people with information on work skills and routes to employment."

That was the lasting lesson for St Andrew's Academy pupil Olivia McKinney: "You can feel you're being pushed into things. I've learned that it's my decision and no one else's."

`We're building on their interpersonal skills'

Shaping my Future was one strand of a strategy called "The Enterprise Hub", designed to improve opportunities for Renfrewshire school-leavers, while enhancing the local economy.

A virtual campus rather than a physical structure, the Hub aims to pull together a variety of initiatives and sectors of the community. Education and business are key players, with the latter delivering skills for learning, life and work, in schools and beyond.

Teachers often focus on academic qualifications, said director of education Robert Naylor. "A significant proportion of young people go on to higher education. But there's a debate now about university and college funding. A successful path for young people in future will be as much about dispositions as qualifications.

"What we've done is create a structure and a partnership with business that will enable us to build the interpersonal skills and the willingness to learn and work that employers want and CfE expects schools to deliver."

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