Academy trust to pioneer paid work experience programme at struggling 16-19 free school

A 16-to-19 free school in Manchester is set to offer paid work experience for some of its pupils, in what is believed to be the first programme of its kind.

Connell Sixth Form College pupils studying its new BTEC extended diploma in business course next year will spend one day a week doing paid work at the Co-op Group’s headquarters in Manchester.

The pupils’ £7.71 an hour wages will be paid by the group, which sponsors the Co-op Academies Trust, in the form of a grant. The college is currently sponsored by Bright Futures Educational Trust, but will transfer to the Co-op Academies Trust in November.

Jane Hopcroft, Connell SFC principal, told sister publication FE Week that the group was “keen to work with local young people in order to develop their opportunities” and paying them for the work experience was “the right thing to do”.

“Their view is that industry should be investing in our young people, and this was a good way to do it,” she said.

The two-year BTEC course – which was previously wrongly reported by some media as an apprenticeship – was chosen because it “links up with aspects of the Co-op Group’s business” including marketing, accounting, economics, HR and ethics.

A lot of the young people that come here are local, and the area is quite deprived

Ms Hopcraft described the Co-op cash as a “kind of bursary” for the college’s pupils, many of whom “have to do paid part-time work in order to fund their time through college”.

“We felt that this would really help us to project who we are and what we’re trying to achieve. A lot of the young people that come here are local, and the area is quite deprived,” she said.

The first Co-op trust had 12 academies across the north of England under its umbrella in April, but has announced plans to expand that number to 40 over the next three years.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said he wasn’t aware of a similar programme being run by another sixth-form college.

“This is a really interesting and innovative example of how to incorporate work experience into the sixth form curriculum,” he said. “Students can earn while they learn and a major local employer is able to shape the workforce of the future.”

Frank Norris, director of the Co-op Academies Trust, told FE Week the new programme built on the trust’s existing work placements with the Co-op for pupils in year 10.

“The Co-op has got value out of that, and those young people are adding value to the business,” he said.

Paying post-16 students would be a recognition that “it’ll be a work placement, but you’re going to work,” Mr Norris added.

“This isn’t just about sitting next to me and finding out what’s going on, you’re going to get actively involved in the business.”

Where are Sky, where are Boots, where are WHSmith, where are Virgin? They are nowhere to be soon

Norris said the move now puts the onus on other businesses to be “much more proactive” about “making it clear to young people about the opportunities there are in their business”.

“The Co-op is the largest business sponsor of academies in the country. Where are Sky, where are Boots, where are WHSmith, where are Virgin? They are nowhere to be soon. And what’s happening is the Co-op is benefitting from this.”

There are other examples in the sector of big businesses sponsoring academy trusts. For instance the arms firm BAE was chosen by the government to sponsor a failing academy in Cumbria, where it is a massive employer, in 2015.

Other businesses also have a less direct role, such as one of a number of sponsors – especially among university technical colleges.

Sky has also “teamed up” with a group of local headteachers to provide “in-school and extra curricular activities in sport, media and technology” at the Bolder Academy, a new free school due to open in Hounslow this week.

Connell SFC, rated ‘good’ by Ofsted in January, was set up in September 2013 as a 16-to-19 free school. However Schools Week revealed last year it was one of many 16-to-19 free schools that had run up a budget deficit after not recruiting enough pupils.