Daren Fairhurst, EBEA Vocational Lead provides some advice on connecting with businesses and entrepreneurs

With Tech and other vocational awards now included in school performance measures, it is vital that business departments have high quality employer and entrepreneurial input into their programmes of study. It is of course a requirement of many courses in the vocational area to develop these links. They will not only provide the rich context within which learners complete assignment tasks, but also ensure that a realistic understanding of enterprise and the work of entrepreneurs is gained by learners. This is something that will go above and beyond what is offered by textbooks and the experiences of the staff who may have more of an “academic” view of enterprise.

The initial assumption that Business departments sometimes have of employers and entrepreneurs is that they can be approached at any time to gain information for an assignment by either themselves or their students. It is important to remember that employers and entrepreneurs don’t have a duty to do this, although sometimes it does help them to achieve CSR objectives. Last minute and ad-hoc approaches are least likely to find a busy employer in a position to help. What is required is a more planned and co-ordinated approach to engagement which is able to clearly achieve benefits for both the schools/learners and the employers/entrepreneurs.

This is particularly important in areas of the country such as ours where there are no well-known organisations, with predominantly SMEs being by far the largest constituent group. We needed a strategy to inform local employers about how they could provide learning opportunities for our learners. It is important that you are clear to potential partners as to what you mean by “learning opportunities”. Does this mean direct involvement, the provision of case study material, talks to learners, work placements, or something else? It should be remembered that this will always incur a financial or time cost to the employer/entrepreneur.

One way in which we addressed this is through holding an employer launch event where myself as Head of Department talked to employers about effective relationships with education establishments and outlined some of the possible pitfalls. These are important to highlight so that a balanced decision can be taken. An outline of the programme of study, timings and forms of engagement were also provided as well as an opportunity to gauge what was required in return for this investment from potential partners. This could include use of facilities for training, using the partnership as part of promotional material for the enterprise and potential branding on departmental communications. This has proved successful in the past as it has to feel like the partnership is a two-way approach and not “all take and no give”.

Another approach is to use local chambers of commerce which, although previously active when engaging with schools, is a resource that has been sometimes overlooked in recent years. In response to this as a department we set up an “Inside the Workplace” event, and links were made with the local Chambers of Commerce, showing how beneficial a partnership could be in terms of not only the material that can be generated to support learning in schools, but also in terms of input that we can make as a school to make our students more employable in the local economic environment, which the Chambers represents. This led to a member of staff attending local networking meetings which enhanced the willingness of local businesses to become involved in the development of programmes of study and learning resources.

In these ways we have been able to create a directory of local employers who we can call upon to provide the activities we use not just for assignment work, but also the practical application of theory so that a “real world” understanding of concepts such as breakeven, recruitment etc can be gained.

The actual engagement that has been negotiated with employers and entrepreneurs over recent years has been many and varied. It is driven largely by the required outcome of the unit or programme of study that is being delivered. The potential outcomes have included:
• work experience placements
• talking with students regarding a specific enterprise issue
• running workshops to demonstrate business activities
• mentoring learners in terms of the work that they are producing for assignments
• providing contexts to complete assignment work
• assessing assignment work in terms of its factual accuracy and application in context
• provision of customer service opportunities to develop these skills and any other relevant input that is appropriate.

It is important from this list to understand that there are plenty of forms of engagement that can be achieved over the course of a programme of study that can be based around what is required in each instance.
It is also important to consider the form of engagement as certain forms of engagement have more impact than others. When looking at research carried out by the Careers and Enterprise Company in their “What Works” research, it is clear that different forms of engagement has yielded different levels of impact on those participating in the engagement. These are outlined in the table below:

Strong Evidence of Positive Impact Some Evidence of Positive Impact Little Evidence of Positive Impact
High quality evaluations showing positive impact Lower quality evaluations showing positive impact Insufficient evidence of positive impacts
Employer mentoring 1-2 week work experience Careers fairs
Enterprise competitions Co-delivered careers learning E-mentoring
Work related learning Careers talks Job shadowing
  Careers websites Part-time working
  Co-delivered curriculum learning Teacher CPD delivered by employers
  CV workshops Volunteering
  Employability skills workshops delivered by employers  
  Mock interviews  
Taken from “What Works in Careers and Enterprise”

https://www.careersandenterprise.co.uk/research/publications/what-works-careers-and-enterprise

Close monitoring of business links is essential to ensure quality of provision for learners and a worthwhile outcome for the employer/entrepreneur.

It is important though, from an assessment perspective, that students are also able to collate the kind of evidence that enables them to demonstrate achievement of the assignment’s learning objectives. This needs to be considered carefully when negotiating the form of partnership established. Students must ultimately be better placed to meet the requirements of the awarding bodies and to be able to achieve assessment criteria at all levels.
A common mistake that is made by schools is that opportunities are developed to generate valid evidence for units such as customer service; however the emphasis is put onto the development of the practical element of the work without consideration of how higher-level criteria can be achieved. This can then lead to an element of back-filling which causes problems of understanding with the learners and potential issues with the evidence that is being generated. It is important therefore to ensure that when discussing engagement opportunities with employers/entrepreneurs, is done so from a position of knowing exactly what needs to be achieved, at all levels of achievement.

It is also important to remember what it is that employers/entrepreneurs require from such a partnership. Previously in the article, there was mention of physical outcomes for those engaging with a business department, but this consideration should not be understated in terms of its potential as an issue. For some enterprises a school or college link can help them develop the skills of their employees. This may be to meet some performance management target or to develop their skills in working with external stakeholders. The skills developed in working with young learners can help employees in terms of future employment opportunities, as well as promotion within their own organisations. They may want to engage more proactively with the local employment market and encourage the development of the skills they need and so reduce the cost of recruitment. Getting in early can help enterprises achieve these outcomes more readily.

Whilst there can be a significant investment required in terms of time and preparation by all parties concerned, the benefits in terms of the learning experience garnered by learners will reap significant rewards in many ways.Not least of this is the engagement of learners with the scheme of learning that will have been developed, as well as inevitably, the levels of achievement as a result of a richer understanding of the environment within which the learners are studying the subject. It should be remembered though that the employers and entrepreneurs involved in the programme should see some benefit for the time and effort that they are investing in the partnership.