Ask not what employers can do for your students. Ask what your students can do for employers, says Gerard Liston

It was encouraging to hear Justine Greening tell the Conservative Party conference that, ‘British business is the ultimate opportunity giver. I want to see businesses spotting and polishing up the talent of a new generation’. She went on to say how pleased she was that the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have agreed to get behind the six Opportunity Areas also announced in the speech.

I agree.

For more than 10 years, I have explored ways of engaging employers with their local schools and, above all, I’ve discovered that it is not one-way traffic. A partnership should involve benefits on all sides and it is just too easy to assume that schools are the beneficiary and employers are the ‘opportunity giver’.

Too often, employer engagement ends up looking like guest speakers, work experience or corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, with employers busy delivering and preparing, while teachers manage behaviour and safeguarding issues.

But it doesn’t have to be like this: projects that are co-designed with employers, but embedded in teachers’ existing schemes of work, can bring day-to-day classroom learning to life. At minimum, they make a series of lessons more enjoyable for both teacher and students. At best, they can waken children to the point of working hard during their time at school.

A partnership should involve benefits on all sides – it is too easy to assume that schools are the beneficiary

Such projects should present a purposeful challenge and not some sort of contrived scenario. They should focus on a real situation facing an employer and demand creative responses from the students – who will require briefings and research material if they are to come up with potentially useful solutions. A visit from the employer at the end of a project is a powerful motivator but also demonstrates their genuine interest.

The end result is a million miles from the kind of responses teachers might expect – and have to mark – based on textbook exercises. Ironically, if planned properly, students will have to apply the same subject knowledge, understanding and skills that are being tested in homework or traditional classroom tasks.

Examples range from the head office of a major supermarket chain that asked key stage 3 students for ideas about ensuring their 133,000 employees remembered the company’s corporate values, to a large port authority that asked year 8 students to translate safety information for ships crews from the Philippines. In all cases, employers are amazed by the effort applied to the task and the fresh ideas that can come out of young minds.

It would be wrong to try and directly correlate these kind of ‘real’ projects with better academic attainment and progression. It is possible to measure and monitor development of personal motivation, future aspirations and employability skills – helping schools to address the ‘personal development’ section of the Ofsted school inspection framework. But even the most academically-driven school would recognise that a motivated child with aspirations and soft skills is likely to be a much better learner.

A visit from the employer at the end of a project is a powerful motivator but also demonstrates their genuine interest

Of course, the majority of employers are not corporates, but small firms, so it was encouraging to hear Justine Greening announce the support of the Federation of Small Businesses. Although these firms are unlikely to have CSR objectives, they have many other potential motivations.

One project implemented across a whole school in Bradford, together with a local bike shop, focused on the arrival of the Tour de France as it passed the town. Another asked primary school students for creative ideas for promotions at a sandwich shop across from the school gates. Engaging hundreds of youngsters from families that are all potential customers, it is not difficult to see how small firms can benefit. Attracting local workers – including young part-time staff – and generating local PR are just some of the other potential benefits.

Working with employers to inform young people’s future pathways should be much more than just a statutory duty. Schools should avoid it becoming a tag-on activity or outsourcing the responsibility to an external provider, just as they would never outsource responsibility for teaching and learning.

Employer engagement is a great opportunity both to contribute to school improvement and offer benefits to the local business community. To paraphrase President Kennedy: “Ask not what employers can do for your students. Ask what your students can do for employers.”

Gerard Liston formerly ran a marketing company, retrained to become a qualified teacher and now runs Forum Talent Potential CIC