Creating long-term, sustainable employer partnerships

Written by: Gerard Liston | Published:
Real-life learning: North Tyneside employers explain their challenges to year 10 students as part of an Unlocking Talent & Potential project

Careers guidance and curriculum learning should go hand-in-hand. Drawing on his work with the Unlocking Talent & Potential initiative, Gerard Liston advises on effective curriculum-careers links and employer partnerships

It may have taken a few months, but late last year the government finally responded in some detail to proposals from the House of Commons Education Select Committee about what is needed to improve careers guidance in schools.

Under the heading of “What should schools be doing?”, the government agrees with the Select Committee that “excellent careers education and guidance is about offering an age-appropriate variety of activities, embedded in the curriculum and delivered in collaboration with employers and other partners”.

This view is echoed in the Good Career Guidance report published by the Gatsby Foundation in 2014. Among the eight benchmarks established by this report is one recommending that “all teachers should link curriculum learning to careers”.

However, also in the report, the author acknowledges that “...attractive though the idea may be, it is difficult in practice to consistently embed career awareness in the regular curriculum”.

But however difficult it is, partnering with employers to embed experiences within curriculum learning is more likely be sustainable than traditional careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) activities, such as careers fairs, mock interviews, guest speakers and impartial advisors, which all require special planning, external providers or additional funding.

One thing is for sure: schools will continue to teach subjects and their success will continue to be measured in terms of attainment and progression.

The Unlocking Talent & Potential (UTP) model was developed, with government funding, two years before the Gatsby report was published and has built a portfolio with dozens of case studies. It is a new model of school-employer partnership which has been trialled in a number of UK schools.

As Phil Crompton, executive principal at Trent Academies Group in Nottingham, explained in SecEd last year: “It is an integrated approach, which incorporates employer input into existing study modules. It helps teachers bring traditional curriculum subjects alive and makes learning more relevant to what’s needed in today’s and tomorrow’s world.” (Employability skills: Unlocking Talent and Potential, SecEd, May 2016).

Pilot work on the Gatsby benchmarks with more than a dozen schools in the North East has identified that linking curriculum learning to careers is the most difficult benchmark to achieve.

This might be because already-burdened teachers assume it will involve extra planning and disruption to schemes of work. But, UTP has shown that a step-by-step approach can not only make the process efficient and logical, but the end-result is enhanced learning, more motivated students, and sustainable partnerships with local employers.

Prepare before approaching businesses

In her speech to last year’s Conservative Party Conference, education secretary Justine Greening described British businesses as, “the ultimate opportunity giver”.

Too often this can result in a cap-in-hand approach from schools working with businesses: requests for free resources and CSR (corporate-social responsibility) programmes or leaving employers to struggle at the front of a classroom, while watching from the back.

The six steps that form the basis of the UTP process places “Employer Engagement and Partnerships” as step 4, not step 1.

Before approaching an employer, schools are encouraged to ensure that they have a strategic view of careers guidance, and that they have identified curriculum areas or year groups as priorities and starting points. The principles of project-based learning are then used to outline how an existing scheme of work might be brought to life, before this is then presented in a brief to the employer (step 4).

Importantly, the brief describes the potential benefits for the business or community partner, as well as explaining the needs of the school.
It is crucial to lay the foundation for a win-win relationship and to be clear about what is being asked of an employer.

Lasting, mutually beneficial partnerships are not created by recruiting a network of volunteers for one day a month with a nebulous request for “strategic support”. Evidence shows that many employers are keen to get involved with local schools, but they do need to have answers to their what, when and why questions before making a commitment.

A year 10 PSHE project at Monkseaton Academy in North Tyneside (pictured, top) involved six local employers visiting the school to brief students about their companies, their roles and a real issue facing each of their organisations.

They came back after six weeks to see the students’ completed presentations, at which point a senior manager from Capita, said: “Being involved in this process ... has been very rewarding for me as an employer, to be involved with so many students, and hopefully rewarding for the students as well. But in terms of what’s come out for the time put in, the return on investment has been phenomenal.”

Small, local employers

In her speech, Ms Greening talked about working with the Federation of Small Businesses, as well as the Confederation of British Industry, which largely represents corporate businesses.

Although the vast majority of employers are SMEs, these are often overlooked by schools in favour of large firms, who often have well-organised CSR activities or volunteering programmes.

Our experience is that small firms are much more likely to make long-term partners and are motivated for different reasons. Press coverage in a local paper can raise the profile of both the employer and the school in a local community and the students, as well as their families, are also likely to become customers or even employees. Large or small, “step 4” in the UTP process should outline a clear and compelling proposition to the employer.

One project involving a cluster of primary schools in Bradford specifically targeted high street businesses that the children see on their way to and from school. This included managers from the local branches of Lloyds Bank and Boots, the owners of a graphic design studio, an auto repair centre and a food outlet, along with a junior partner from a firm of solicitors. Each of them provided a short, informal video clip with an introductory message and a purposeful challenge, one of which was chosen by groups of pupils in the schools.

The pupil group that scored highest had proposed ways of improving the use of social media at the law firm. The lawyer said: “It was really enlightening to see the children and their ideas and how they have worked with the brief. Their confidence and how they captivated the audience was fantastic.”

The owner of the auto repair centre added: “They worked really hard in my class. They came up with ideas I’d never thought of and we may be able to use them in the future. (I have) just come out of the assembly, they were saying that they’ve got some more new ideas. I think I’m going to have to call in at school in a couple of weeks with my notebook!”

Assess impact on personal development

Whatever employers’ motives, there is little point in setting up a project without measuring the impact on young people. Ofsted’s latest school inspection framework has added a section on personal development, including the development of employability skills. Alongside this, Ofsted still requires leaders, managers and governors to plan and manage careers advice that equips every child to make informed choices for future education, training or employment – not just the potential NEETs and not just those who may not be academically able – but every child.

Students taking part in curriculum projects based on the UTP model self-assess their development of personal motivation, future aspirations and employability skills.

Typically using online tools such as SmartSurvey, this only takes a few minutes, avoiding it becoming a tedious task resulting in hurried responses. Each child’s record shows how the project has contributed to their personal development, while summary data can be used to guide leadership and management decisions about career guidance.

Impact assessment should not be about Ofsted protection. Curriculum projects involving employers are likely to be part of a portfolio of experiences throughout each child’s formal education, each of which contributes to their employability learning journey. Periodic self-reflection is essential for students to take stock and discover their distinctive strengths and interests. It is this knowledge that enables them to make informed choices at transition points and, ultimately, to compete in the job market.

With bought-in careers activities, assessment can be reduced to trying to show that it was worth the investment, while passport-type logbooks run the risk of becoming a collection of stamps and badges.

Young people have to internalise the learning and see the point of it. Robust assessment cannot sidestep whole-school issues, such as choosing a skills rubric, defining skills levels or standards, storing digital records of self-assessment and agreeing the place and time for self-reflection.

A year 8 maths project at Thornaby Academy helped students engage with “statistics, charts and graphs”, using data sets provided by the nearby company Tees Barrage. The teacher’s original brief stated that “students often say they don’t see the point of this part of the curriculum”.

Data from the self-assessment process showed that 83 per cent said they had developed team-working, among other skills. Students even noted they were proud “that we have got a finished presentation now and that it is neat” and “of the graphs because it explains information on the board more clearly”.

Don’t keep success stories to yourself

The dozens of published UTP case studies not only describe each project and give lots of ideas and food for thought, but summarise the benefits for the school, the employer and the students involved. As well as offering inspiration to teachers about bringing their own subject lessons to life, they allow good practice to be shared across schools.

With schools operating within a multi-academy trust, school improvement partnership, local authority or some other form of network, sharing experiences and resources is common sense and efficient.

Although the UTP toolkit is freely available, schools often need some support to get the first few projects up-and-running. This typically takes place across a network with the intention of sharing these exemplar projects at a subsequent CPD or dissemination event.

The Education Select Committee’s report in July started by saying: “Inadequate careers guidance in many English schools is exacerbating skills shortages and having a negative impact on the country’s productivity.”

A headteacher whose school is in special measures might be forgiven for thinking “not my problem”. The statutory responsibility is to provide impartial guidance from year 8 upwards, with only general guidelines and no additional funding.

But if there is one thing we learn from getting to grips with benchmark four from the Gatsby report, it is that engaging employers in win-win partnerships has the potential to bring classroom learning to life and to develop young people’s motivation, aspirations and skills. And every headteacher would accept that such a young person is likely to be a better and more successful learner.

  • Gerard Liston is director of Forum Talent Potential CIC.

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