School partnerships: Skilling up your students

Businesses have so much to offer schools as part of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies, says Ahead Partnership

With rapid changes in workplace technology and busy curriculums, it’s not easy for schools to deliver up-to-the-minute skills training for their students. Employers often voice concerns that young people are not equipped with the skills or knowledge needed in the workplace – and have little awareness of the range of jobs on offer. But how can schools establish beneficial connections to address these issues?

Social impact leader Ahead Partnership develops collaborative programmes between business, education, community organisations and the public sector across the country. The idea is that such partnerships enable employers to tackle skills, diversity and inclusivity challenges by playing an active role in developing young talent.

Ahead Partnership was founded 20 years ago by Leeds-based corporate solicitor Stephanie Burras CBE. Having taken part in a local mentoring programme for young people with her law firm colleagues, she was moved by the impact it had on mentors and students. As a result, she set up her own organisation to expand the work. ‘Our mission is to create partnerships with businesses that want to support young people in impactful ways, as part of achieving their ESG goals,’ she says.

From CSR to ESG

The shift in thinking from corporate social responsibility (CSR) that focuses on fundraising and one-off community projects to ESG goals that consider the wider social impact of business on society and the planet has opened up opportunities for nurturing future talent. Ahead Partnership develops programmes in key growth sectors including the built environment, digital and technology, transport, health and care, professional and financial services and green skills. It works with businesses such as PwC, Landsec and John Lewis Partnership through to public bodies such as the NHS, combined authorities and local authorities to deliver effective social impact.

Growing digital talent

Today, 87% of advertised jobs in the UK require digital skills. The Growing Talent Digital programmes are aimed at inspiring school students, aged 11-18, from various city regions. For example, Leeds has almost 35,000 people employed in digital, but most businesses find it difficult to recruit candidates with the skills they need.

Some of the city’s top employers are now leading and funding the Growing Talent Digital Leeds initiative, which includes masterclasses, career panels and festivals designed to break down barriers, address misconceptions and improve the diversity of the future workforce. Now in its second year, the Leeds programme has so far reached over 13,000 young people from 26 schools, with 90% of those taking part saying it had helped them understand the skills needed to work in digital.

Part of the programme is the annual #GirlTechLeeds event for more than 100 girls aged 12-14 who are thinking about their GCSE options. This interactive tech and digital experience day is delivered by female professionals from tech companies such as Netcompany, Infinity Works, AND Digital and BJSS and cross-sector digital employers. Ahead Partnership is also planning a #GirlTechPlus later in the year for post-16 students in Leeds. Jen Smith, careers leader at a local academy, said: ‘Taking part in #GirlTechLeeds and the wider Growing Talent Digital activities makes a real difference to the way students view digital jobs and the skills they need for their futures. It was fantastic to see the students grow in confidence – they came away feeling inspired and empowered about the opportunities for them in the local economy.’

For Kirstie van Oerle, partner at Netcompany, it’s a no brainer: ‘Businesses like ours need a strong talent pipeline, which makes engaging the next generation a priority. Sadly, women are still underrepresented in the sector, so we’re helping to tackle this issue through targeted activities.’

The West Midlands programme

Ahead Partnership is also responding to business concerns around talent, diversity and future workforce through their Growing Talent West Midlands programme. Key sectors are brought to life for young people through year-round programmes of sustained and exciting employer-led activity in schools and colleges. The activities the employers design and deliver together vary according to the ages of the young people involved, and can include careers panels, speed networking, lesson resources and work experience. The programme is supported by a cross-sector of employers including Goldman Sachs, PwC and Intercity and has engaged more than 30,000 young people so far, with 93% of students reporting they feel better informed to consider their future goals.

School engagement in Oxfordshire

Further south, Ahead Partnership is working with several employers on local skills programmes to encourage young people to explore the career options on their doorstep. For example, it is delivering a five-year schools’ engagement programme with Milton Park – a leading science, business and technology community. The aim is to inspire students through events such as work experience days, interactive careers panels and interview practice. In a recent Explore Milton Park event, students from St Birinus School took part in an all-day ‘trek’ – including a skills workshop at Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ Learning Lab and a tour of flexible workspace the Bee House – to learn about sustainable buildings, design and planning. They also rode on the UK’s first fully electric autonomous bus service being trialled at the business park.

Further opportunities for schools

Similar programmes are being delivered across the country from Ashford to Aberdeen, with new opportunities opening up in 2023/24 in Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff, Somerset, Kent, Derby, Oxford and Southampton.

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