Link up with business

Kevin Parker reveals how to connect with businesses, and Jane Hughes profiles successful initiatives across the UK

Schools talk a lot about connecting with the ‘wider community’, but what does this mean when it comes to business? Are opportunities to link with employers being missed? How could such collaborations enrich your curriculum and enhance your educational offer?

This is about more than fundraising – though donations of money or materials for a project or prizes for a raffle are obviously welcome, as is the opportunity for match-funding. It’s also about the invaluable ‘people resources’ that business can provide – whether that be volunteers to improve a play area, or the knowledge and expertise that can be shared through pupil mentoring or leadership support (such as school governors). Most importantly, it’s about equalising opportunities for all children by building long-term partnerships between education and the workplace, and opening pupils’ eyes to the possibilities ahead.

The good news is that boosting young people’s life chances is at the heart of a campaign by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to encourage businesses and schools to work more closely together. According to the non-profit organisation, which represents 190,000 businesses and has worked with the Social Mobility Foundation, 65% of employers would be willing to play a greater role in supporting schools and colleges.

With the rapid pace of change created by globalisation and technological advance, the CBI found that 44% of businesses felt school and college leavers were not ‘work ready’. However, it also found that when a young person has four or more encounters with an employer, they are five times less likely to be unemployed in their adult life. By reaching out to schools, says the CBI, businesses can become a force for good in their community; they can tackle skills gaps, enthuse children with role models and work experience, and provide mentoring for pupils and school leaders.

That sounds like an open invitation for schools to connect.

 

‘What I learnt in business helped me create opportunities in school,’ says Kevin Parker, school business manager at Ann Edwards Church of England Primary School near Cirencester.

‘Prior to becoming an SBM, I worked in both retailing and education recruitment. I supplied teachers to more than 150 schools across the Midlands and the South West, which meant that I got to speak to a range of headteachers and senior leaders about their visions for education. And, because I was visiting schools, I was able to see first-hand what some had achieved – and ask lots of questions about what they had done.

Working in recruitment taught me how to communicate confidently with all kinds of people, to listen to what each person wants to do, and to understand the perspective they are starting from. This has served me well in my current role when I have approached businesses for support. My degree in business management and human resources was also a useful grounding, with units in marketing and business enterprise giving me the knowledge and skills to successfully market projects and initiatives.

I’ve realised that people in positions of power are still people – and are therefore approachable! If you have a story to pitch about wanting to provide your pupils with opportunities, then go ahead and pitch it. Of course, it can be nerve-wracking to step outside your comfort zone, but my top tip is to stay focused on the person, rather than their job title.

The three main questions I face from school staff and SBMs are:

  • Why do you want to work with businesses?
  • How do you get started?
  • What’s in it for the businesses?

 

Why work with businesses?

The main reason our school wants to network with business is to grow the image and name of Ann Edwards positively across Gloucestershire and beyond. We are at the heart of a large village, and through activities such as community coffee mornings we work

hard to build emotional investment in our school, and to make the most of local skillsets, knowledge and connections. My aim is to showcase the fantastic work already going on, and attract support to develop future opportunities.

As with many schools, a decade’s worth of cuts has impacted our investment into systems, processes and equipment. School budgets are heavily determined by pupil numbers and, for various reasons, such as some of our service children moving abroad and a low local birth rate in recent years, we have spaces in every year group. We don’t yet need help with pens and pencils, but any support we do receive frees up the budget to invest in long-term objectives. By raising the profile of Ann Edwards, we aim to attract more families, while also increasing income streams from local businesses and grants providers.

 

Getting started

Many businesses want to work with schools – they just don’t always know how, or what type of support schools require. So schools may need to take the lead by approaching companies with a realistic and attractive plan or project.

As an inclusive school that welcomes children from all faiths and backgrounds, Ann Edwards likes to be a bit quirky. We have a double-decker bus as our school library, and a four-metre tepee for mindfulness and wellbeing sessions. I’ve promoted these initiatives as “unique selling points” that appeal to businesses – and have offered opportunities for companies to support us. And it’s worked!

More than 30 local and national businesses donated a total of £11,500 towards the library bus, after I approached them in person or through LinkedIn. Six employees from Bosch Rexroth – specialists in drive and control technology – spent a day decommissioning the bus and also upgrading our SARA (silent and reflection area) garden by cutting back bushes and laying new gravel.

'People in positions of power and still people. If you have a story to pitch, then go ahead and pitch it.'

Since October, our local Co-op in South Cerney has provide weekly food parcels for our families most in need, donating more than £1,750 of food in just 16 weeks. Meanwhile, during the most recent lockdown, DXC Technologies – a global IT company with offices in Tewkesbury and Bristol – donated 50 laptops so that pupils without access to devices could engage with home-learning.

Also during the last lockdown, I posted a status update on LinkedIn about celebrating #ChildrensMental Health Week with vulnerable and keyworker children attending school. My post was spotted by Telephone Europe director David Murphy, who made the idea a reality by putting money for 30 large pizzas in our bank account the same day! Local coach operator Barnes Coaches then kindly delivered the pizzas to the school doors.

We’re also grateful to employees of teaching supply agency Class People, who have volunteered at our school fairs, and to classic car company Thornley Kelham, which brought luxury cars to our school site to promote road safety week.

 

What’s in it for businesses?

There are always gains. At our school, this ranges from a simple ‘thank you’ in our fortnightly newsletter (with a reach of hundreds of parents and carers), to something more permanent that recognises the support given, such as a logo displayed on the school site. For businesses, working with our school becomes part of a long-term marketing strategy, allowing them to reach out to new customer markets and build their brand profile and customer loyalty.

Our communication channels allow us to spread the word about new projects and opportunities to a wide audience with a few clicks of a button. While this is primarily parents, it’s also a way of tapping into where parents work. When people view these messages with their workplace hat on, they see the potential for great content to showcase how they are engaging with the education sector.

What’s more, helping a school demonstrates that a business has a strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) ethos. Many employees have children and therefore have some first-hand knowledge of just how tough it is for schools at the moment. They will give back because it makes them feel good, look good, and because it benefits not only their own children but also future generations.

If a business partners with a school, it could inspire a pupil to work for them, or at least have a passion for their sector! Knowing they were part of that journey should be all the motivation a business needs.’

 

When reaching out to businesses, it makes sense to start local. Companies rooted in your area are more likely to provide long-term support, perhaps with training or job opportunities down the line. However, it’s also worth being open to the unexpected: exciting ideas can emerge when people from different sectors join up their thinking to enrich educational opportunities, says Jane Hughes.

Finding governors

Governors for Schools (governorsforschools.org.uk) is an education charity that links schools with skilled professionals across England and Wales.

More than a third of schools in England have one or more vacancies on their governing board. Governors for Schools is tackling this shortage by finding high calibre volunteers who want to use their expertise to help improve educational outcomes. In the past six months, the charity has placed 1,200 volunteers on school boards. Schools can register a vacancy on its website, specifying desirable skills or expertise. A partnerships manager then identifies volunteers with the appropriate skill set–who are either local or able to support the board remotely. There is no charge for state schools.

The charity actively promotes diversity on the grounds that it makes a stronger board, reflecting school communities and the wider country. In 2020, more than 30% of its volunteers were from BAME backgrounds, and over 65% were under 45, with a range of skills, life experiences and perspectives.

Engineer Nadia Greuner became a governor because she wanted to make sure opportunities were available for everyone, especially for encouraging girls to take STEM subjects. ‘I’m one of three women in my office,’ she says. ‘We’ve battled through an education system that has told us we can’t be engineers because we’re female. I do what I say I’m going to do –and that’s important in my day job and in my role as a governor. Being pretty cut and dry means that when it comes to being a governor, I’m prepared to challenge how things are done.’

For Deloitte, a global provider of audit, consulting and financial advisory services, supporting strong school leadership is a key objective of its 5 Million Futures CSR programme to improve access to education and employment. Deloitte partnered with Governors for Schools to place staff volunteers in schools serving low-income communities across England and Wales. Since September 2020, 36 of its staff have become school governors, with 48 people currently moving through the application process. The idea is that these individuals will develop their own skills through volunteering, and make a positive impact in schools and wider communities.

'The idea is that these individuals will develop their own skills through volunteering, and make a positive impact in schools and wider communities.'

 

Promoting STEM

Energy company Drax Group (drax.com) has a longstanding commitment to support schools local to its power stations by promoting STEM subjects and careers through a range of initiatives.

Its educational outreach programme aims to encourage more children to study STEM subjects. Thousands of pupils have enjoyed free educational tours at Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, as well as Cruachan pumped hydro storage power station in Scotland.

Drax has also invested in careers events encouraging girls to work in the energy sector (as part of efforts to address the underrepresentation of women). Additionally, it has supported schools to take part in the Greenpower Challenge (a national competition run by UK charity Greenpower Education Trust) by providing them with EV kit cars to build and race.

During the pandemic, educational tours moved online and Drax developed an extensive educational webinar programme with short videos, STEM challenge activities and interactive resources: drax.com/visit-us/educational-resources. The company spent £250,000 to provide more than 850 laptops (with three months’ pre-paid internet access) to 50 schools.

'Drax is investing in education to ensure it has access to a skilled workforce in the future.'

Drax aims to develop a negative-emissions technology called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), needed in a net-zero economy. It is investing in education to ensure it has access to a skilled workforce that can develop and operate the green technologies of the future.

In partnership with the Social Mobility Pledge led by former education secretary Justine Greening, Drax has published an Opportunity Action Plan. It has also announced a five-year partnership with Selby College as part of its Mobilising a Million initiative, which aims to increase employability for a million people by 2025.

Support with STEM subjects continues through a structured work experience training programme: Drax took on 21 young people in 2019 across departments including chemistry, IT, finance, logistics and engineering, in placements of between one and four weeks. It is currently running virtual work experience programmes. There’s also an apprenticeship scheme, with offers of full-time employment for successful trainees.

 

Online careers workshops

At the beginning of the year, Future First (futurefirst.org.uk), a charity that helps schools build alumni networks, joined forces with financial services company Legal & General to run two virtual workshops for secondary school pupils in England.

The Future First workshops focused on areas with low rates of social mobility and were aimed at tackling perceptions about working for Legal & General, as well as providing advice and support with interview skills. Each session was staffed by seven volunteers, and together they reached about 60 students. Legal & General business development executive Laurence Stannard says he was overwhelmed by how many staff wanted to get involved: ‘The team clearly got a lot out of it: they were falling over themselves to give information, while the students were really engaged. Many staff come from similar backgrounds to the students, and so they understand why social and economic mobility is important.

‘The students don’t have exposure to what is out there –and the volunteers get that. The work Future First is doing gives young people the confidence to step outside their comfort zone and try things that may inspire them.’

 

Connecting to careers

The Careers and Enterprise Company (careersandenterprise.co.uk) was set up by the government in 2014 to facilitate high-quality careers education by linking schools with employers. It is funded by an annual grant from the Department for Education. Today, around 85% of mainstream secondary schools and colleges are members of the organisation’s ‘Enterprise Adviser Network’. This partners schools with volunteers who are business professionals, able to give a valuable employer perspective and create local opportunities for young people. The rise in youth unemployment since the start of the pandemic, combined with disruption to traditional careers programmes in schools, makes engagement with employers even more important.

Through the scheme, Ensafe, a leading environmental and compliance service provider, has supported schools and colleges in Northamptonshire for many years, and its chief executive Greg Kirkman works as an enterprise adviser. Having experienced skills shortages in young people locally, Greg says Ensafe is investing time and resources into developing talent.

'Volunteers are able to give a valuable employer perspective and create local opportunities for young people.'

Greg is also a trustee for two SEND Multi Academy Trusts. Ensafe recently created a long-term work experience placement for Dylan Thomas, 17, a sixth-form SEND student from Daventry Hill School in Northamptonshire. It is hoped he will become the company’s first supported internship. Dylan works three days a week from 9am to 3pm, and has gained experience across all departments, from administration to lab work.

Dylan says: ‘Working at Ensafe has given me a great opportunity. I have learnt lots of new skills working as part of a team. It will make it easier for me to get a job once I finish school. I am very grateful for this opportunity.’

Additionally, Greg has mentored KS4 pupils at Daventry Hill, helping them prepare for interview by looking at different types of interviews, the power of social presence and how to greet someone correctly. Staff from Ensafe also took part in online workshops with pupils, and recently released a video highlighting to students how many transferable skills they develop in lessons, and how relevant their subject studies are to the workplace.

 

Equipment donations

The charity Business2Schools (business2schools.com) collects unwanted technology products, office equipment and furniture from companies and gives it to schools.

Founded by company director and school governor Lindsey Parslow in 2019, Business2Schools has redistributed more than 20,000 desktops and laptops, and helped schools around the country refurnish their buildings with high-quality furniture that’s been cast off when companies relocate or upgrade. It is currently rehoming more than 2,000 devices donated by the BBC.

One business professional who came on board to support the charity’s lockdown appeal is Katie Lewis, regional director of global consultancy TransPerfect and a volunteer within the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA). After finding out about the work of Business2Schools on the BBC, Katie reached out to the 400-plus members of the HBA – many of whom work at large corporations – on WhatsApp. She included a request template that members could forward to colleagues in operations or IT for any unwanted tech.

As a result, the pharmaceutical firm Mallinckrodt donated 50 laptops and 50 iPads to the charity, while another pharmaceutical company, Takeda, gave more than 20 laptops.

‘A lot of companies upgrade their IT every couple of years and the old stuff just sits around,’ says Katie. ‘People don’t realise that schools are desperate for technology, and that donating it could make an immediate and significant difference to children’s lives.’