Norfolk schools working to prepare youngsters for work

Schools and colleges across the country stand accused of simply teaching to the exam and failing to prepare our young people for the real world. Education correspondent Victoria Leggett looks at what is being done here to answer that criticism – and what more still needs to be done.

When students leave school, college or university and take that daunting step into the world of work, they jump from needing to know how to take an exam and draw a decent pie chart to being expected to talk easily to customers, work comfortably with colleagues and generally get on in the real world.

They are skills most people lucky enough to already have a job take for granted but, according to businesses, are often a step too far for our recent school leavers.

Education leaders in Norfolk and Suffolk are working hard to answer that criticism and show that their students are ready to hit the ground running – but is it enough?

According to Dick Palmer, City College Norwich principal, the complaint so-frequently bandied about by businesses in recent months as youth unemployment figures have steadily risen is nothing new.

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He said: 'There has been a long-standing disappointment in business over the last 25 years, probably, about young people just not being ready for work. It's interesting when you talk to somebody like Aviva, who we work with very closely on financial services, they will say 'your accountants are fine, but generally the schools aren't'.

'There's always an over-arching disappointment in business about what we do. They think the sector as a whole is not providing the right mix.'

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Schools and colleges up and down the country will, of course, insist they have been working hard to instill those important qualities – like working well in a team or mastering clear communication – in their pupils for many years.

But there seems to have been a re-doubling of efforts more recently as accusations of only teaching youngsters to pass exams have become more frequent.

Rob Anthony, associate headteacher at the Hewett School in Norwich, felt it was about recognising the need for balance.

He said: 'Schools are beginning to realise that education has lots of purposes and one of its main purposes is to prepare people for the world of work. If we don't do that well then we're not doing our job well.

'It's all very well to come out with A*s in everything, but if you can't use the telephone or talk to people, it's no use. It's those skills employers value more.'

At the Hewett School, leaders have decided to make the most of a new government initiative aimed at answering that criticism.

Mr Anthony said: 'Whatever qualifications you do, the ultimate goal is to end up with a job and a career.'

Like an increasing number of schools, the Cecil Road site already has a strong focus on business but it is hoping to go one step further with the creation of the Norwich Studio School for Enterprise.

It has been given the go ahead by the Studio Schools Trust although it missed out on securing additional funding for the new facility.

The school, for 14- to 19-year-olds, would furnish students with the key GCSEs and A-levels employers look for, important work-related skills, as well as putting them through vocational training and work experience.

Mr Anthony said: 'The whole purpose of a studio school is to get young people ready for employment. It teaches a curriculum in a very different way and it's meant to be for those young people who are beginning to feel education isn't for them.'

It means those pupils leaving school and choosing to enter employment at 16, 18, or 19, rather than continuing their education, would be more prepared for the workplace.

In Lowestoft, Denes High School has opted to incorporate that training into its every day curriculum.

The school has had a clear focus on preparing its students for the world of work ever since gaining its specialist status in business and enterprise in 2003.

From making sure pupils know the skills needed for their chosen career and the options open to them, to running their own businesses, the youngsters are being set up for life after school.

Julie Mayo, business and enterprise co-ordinator, said: 'We always had that focus – trying to prepare students for the world of work, not just academically. We believe passionately that education first and foremost is important but they need to be enterprising learners and independent learners to get the most out of their time at school.

'School is such a short time in their lives. We are doing all we can to help prepare them for the long term.'

Eight years into its specialism, Denes High is working hard to develop that approach and ensure even more pupils get to benefit.

Beginning in year seven, students have enterprise and business lessons which aim to arm them with the basic skills needed in the outside world.

Head of business James Christopher said, while numeracy and literacy would always come first, the classes hoped to act as a supplement to that.

Pupils learn the importance of team work, problem solving and giving presentations as well as working with figures, assessing data and personal finance.

He said schools now realised how 'crucially important' those skills were to students.

For City College principal Mr Palmer – whose Ipswich Road site has won a number of awards and accolades for its training – that progress is a big step in the right direction.

But he is still concerned it does not go far enough – and does not reach enough students.

While 90pc of young people at the college are taking vocational courses geared up to preparing for a job, he said that was not the case at the more academic schools and colleges.

Mr Palmer said: 'They do these fantastic initiatives, really good enterprise units, but the problem is it's not everybody. Not all of them do the projects – that's where employers get frustrated. They hear all these great things but when somebody turns up on their doorsteps, they still don't have the right range of skills.'

City College's latest move in its efforts to ensure students can hit the ground running when they leave education hopes to go some way to solving that.

The new Start Up Lounge, which is due to be officially opened in February, is set to be open to every student in the college from those working in its car workshops to those taking A-levels in maths and history of art. By giving young people a space to work on their own business ideas and seek help and advice, it aims to give them a taste of the real world of business and enterprise.

Mr Palmer said: 'It's a fantastic approach. We're not saying everyone will become self-employed. But those who do go into work will be more employable.

'All educational institutions have to now teach so closely to the syllabus. If you do A-level history, you learn it incredibly well, but you don't learn any of the subsidiary areas.

'There isn't any chance of doing extra curricular stuff within that tight time. This will be a really great additional activity to those students.'

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