Preparation is Key

Preparation is Key

With the emphasis on academic life, it's often difficult to remember that our young people need a range of 'softer' skills as part of their tool kit for the real world. Lesley Finlay finds out what schools are doing to help to prepare children for the workplace...

In this new climate for business and the economy, the competition for jobs is becoming increasingly fierce. Businesses want employees who can read and write, of course, but they are also looking for the 'soft skills' of common sense, team-working, problem-solving. These skills cannot be taught but are developed through experience. That's why work-related learning is becoming an increasing priority for schools, even though the Government removed their statutory obligation to do so last year.

As well as offering work experience placements, many schools now offer regular enterprise days. Education Business Partnership (Kent) based in Sandwich runs enrichment days offering genuine business challenges with employers.

Chief executive Anne McNulty said:

"EBP Kent provides individually designed services for schools, colleges and employers. Our events aim to enrich the curriculum, actively engage employers in the development of their future workforce and equip young people with a better understanding of personal skills and their future choices."

More and more schools are offering their own opportunities where students are given chances to practise work-related skills. High Weald Academy in Cranbrook runs a working farm where students are responsible for looking after the animals, an enterprising idea that is a successful part of Lancing College in West Sussex which this year commemorates 30 years of its impressive working farm, set within its 70-acre South Downs site.

A spokesman for the college told Wealden Times: "Lancing College Farm gives students a unique opportunity to take subjects such as biology, geography and business studies out of the classroom, and offers real 'hands-on' experience of a working farm."

"Students can broaden their interests within agriculture, ecology and veterinary science and learn about food sourcing, animal care and sustainability."

They are also taught about wildlife, and their habitats as well as the importance of recycling. Paths, animal bedding and farm buildings have been created from disused materials from the College, including shredded paper, pallets and wood scraps. Students help with shearing, hatching, hand-felling and cutting, charcoal burning, hedge-laying and coppicing. They learn about crop rotation, as peas, wheat and oats are grown on the wider estate.

"As well as supplementing students' studies, the farm presents exciting opportunities beyond the school curriculum." The farm manager Jon Hutcheon, a successful farmer in his own right with extensive experience of country pursuits, uses curricula offered by agricultural colleges – a unique and treasured opportunity for college students.

Other schools are developing the business and entrepreneurial skills of its students – starting very young. Thanks to the success of television programmes like Dragons Den and The Apprentice, self-employment is becoming an option for more and more young people.

A spokesman for Marlborough House School in Hawkhurst told Wealden Times: "A prep school is about preparing children for the future and at Marlborough House that includes giving pupils an insight into the world of work.

"Commercial awareness and drive are not attributes you would necessarily expect of youngsters yet we find that pupils are very interested in the world of work. Our Young Entrepreneur's scheme for Year 7 pupils not only requires them to think of the ideas, produce business plans, budget their money and fund their own enterprises but also to show real determination to succeed.

"For the past two years, Year 7 students at Marlborough House have been creating their own small enterprises. They have been loaned 'seed' money by the school and in small groups, been tasked with generating a small profit by the end of the year. Each group is mentored by someone from the school staff."

The event has become an important part of the school year. Liz Daley, who has run the scheme for the past two years, says: "The most successful groups have been those that were determined and planned ahead to make the best use of the time available to them before the end of the project. Some students were even able to complete one scheme and use the profits to fund a second venture.

" At the end of the project, the children present their finished scheme to an adult audience – an event which is also a key part of the prestigious Business of Enterprise event run by EBP Kent, where finalists have to make their pitch to business people. This year July's finals took place in the NatWest headquarters in Bishopsgate and judges included Paul Mullins, chairman of the Industrial Development Advisory Board, and Laurence Backler, NatWest director of Business Banking for Ashford and Tunbridge Wells.

Mrs McNulty said: "It is fitting that a project capable of having such a high impact on the young participants should have its final in such a prestigious venue and this year, the final delivered a stage of the grandest order. To present at any stage can be a daunting experience, but, incredibly, not one of the students seemed to show a trace of nerves. It is incredible to think that within six months each team had managed to start up a business, by building, marketing and financing a new idea."

A similar experience is offered at Marlborough House to its Year 8 pupils as part of their leavers' programme. A whole day is taken up with the Business Game. This entails teams of six children forming a stationery company and manufacturing a product to sell at a profit – the team that makes the most by the end of the day wins.

The task involves assigning roles from managing director to quality controller. Paul Tooze, deputy headmaster, is in charge of the day. He says:

"It is fascinating to see how the children assign these jobs – they may or may not end up as you might expect but there is always constructive discussion to get there, and the value of teamwork becomes apparent early on."

The day involves genuine challenges including cost control, meeting deadlines and negotiation and the children love it. One said: "The day helped you to think about your future working life and to understand how a company works."

The young people may decide not to pursue a career in business but, as our Marlborough House spokesman says, "They do leave us with a burgeoning awareness of the world of work and emergent skills which will stand them in good stead when they join it."

And those are valuable assets to have.