I guess I should start this with some background information. I never really found my educational mojo whilst at school, I was bright enough but lets just say that my teenage years were not some that I would ever wish to go back to and my teachers were in the main, more requiring improvement than outstanding. I had a careers interview in the 4th year (would now be year 10) and the advisor asked what my ambitions were for after school. From nowhere a voice previously unheard confidently answered “a motor mechanic”. I’m still not sure where that response came from but the result was a little over a year later I left school with three O’Levels (Maths, English and Art) and started an apprenticeship with FIAT.

Learning in my new post was a revelation to me. For a start I suddenly realised that I was not as daft as my teachers had previously convinced me. Physics that only months before made no sense whatsoever, suddenly sprang to life with an engine in front of me. I developed a taste for learning through my four-year apprenticeship and when this ended it was a natural progression to want to learn more. Courses in motor industry management followed and a chance encounter with an advert from the ILEA in the Evening Standard a couple of years later resulted in a teaching internship.

Since joining the teaching profession firstly as a teacher of Design and Technology, later retraining to ICT. I have attempted in my own small way over the years to link the seemingly diverse worlds of business/industry/commerce and education. There have been successes along the way; a project that ran over three years at a girls school involving building and architectural professionals in a three-day project to solve real world problems. Students looked at their local environment through the eyes of professionals as they grappled with the task of siting and designing social housing. Year 10 students designing web sites for local businesses to a real brief and with the involvement of real clients (many of which to the best of my knowledge are still in use), and last but not least, a current project with local business attempting to really prepare students with the hard and soft skills necessary for them to compete in a fast changing and increasingly competitive employment market.

Over this time (unbelievably close to 27 years), governments and initiatives have come and gone. Various professional bodies have bemoaned the ‘fact’ that today’s youth are ill prepared for the immense challenges that lie ahead of them. A gulf often exists between employers who all to easily place the emphasis of preparation firmly on the shoulders of schools absolving themselves of all responsibility and educationalists who often take a purist view of education and stubbornly refuse to see that part of our remit at least is to prepare students for the world of work.

To compound this, vocational education, after years where I finally dared to dream that it would no longer be viewed as being only suitable ‘for the least able’ has been demoted to second class at a stroke, with equivalences being scrapped without any regard to the quality of the course or the context within which the qualification is set. The result is schools (where curriculum content is now sadly mainly dictated by league tables) dropping their vocational offers almost overnight. This will undoubtedly result in students following unsuitable ‘academic’ courses and a further widening of skills gaps in business and industry.

So what is my panacea and more importantly how do we make it reality within the current educational climate? The vision is simple; create a curriculum peppered with context, explain how difficult mathematical concepts are used in business and industry to create real results. Show how you are unlikely to quote huge amounts of Shakespearean prose whilst going about your everyday post in business; but how a love of and mastery of words will allow you to communicate in a way that will give you and the company that you work for a real advantage.

We must seek to actively involve local business in the work of the school, this is not easy and building the required relationships takes time and concentrated effort. You have to demonstrate and often actively create situations where business can see how they can benefit and where they have something real to offer students. Remember not every business leader holds fond memories of their own schooling and coming into a school can be a frightening experience for a young graduate tasked with working with your students. Training, preparation and often coaching is required to get the best from these eager volunteers. At Chiswick, we are working on a scheme to pair teaching staff with business mentors in order to create genuine empathy with each others contexts.

I know its not in-vogue at the moment but we also need to work on the soft skills that are often the deciding factor in an increasingly competitive market. Careers advice is essential; this requires students to self-analyse to really know their areas of strength and development, not so they can play to their strengths; but so that they can continuously develop their repertoire of skills. Once developed, these same students will not know what can be done with these skills and qualifications within the world of work, unless this is clearly communicated.

Students need to be taught how to search the job market, prepare an accurate CV and write a quality letter of application. They need to know how to dress appropriately for interview and how to prepare thoroughly before attending the same. Students also need to be shown the importance of first impressions and body language; there is no magical process of osmosis that will allow students to develop these skills unless they are taught.

At Chiswick School we have been working for the last two years on a programme that covers all of these areas. Over 400 students to date have experienced workshops led by business and teaching staff working together and have gained a level 2 qualification that whatever the league tables state, has real and lasting value. We are by no means there yet and there is much more that we can do to bring the strands together; but for the first time I can genuinely say that there is light at the end of the collective tunnel.

T. Ryan
January 2013

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