Education business partnerships: Business skills help close the attainment gap and boost skills in the workforce

Phil Jones President and Chief Executive of Northern Powergrid, Chair of CBI Yorkshire & Humber and Chair Pontefract Academies Trust

“I believe in the positive impact business is capable of having on the education landscape; having a ready pool of talent and expertise to help meet the needs of an academy trust can make a huge difference to the trust’s work.”

The concept of education and business working together is one that has come to be very close to my heart. That said, it wasn’t until relatively recently that I found out there was a route for someone like me to use hard-edged business skills - honed in the boardroom – to help make a difference in an environment that has previously been considered a million miles away from the corporate world.

I’ve also learned that my previous experience of ‘school governor’ type roles is probably not unusual. As a parent governor in a local authority school, it didn’t feel as though there was scope to make a real difference to the fundamentals of the way the school ran - and ultimately the outcomes of the entire education of many children and young people.

Speaking personally, that left me feeling as though there might be a disconnect – not just for me, but across many of our communities. People who have been relatively successful in the commercial world of work seemed to find it more difficult than it should be to reinvest their talents back into the very organisations that are the bedrock of the way we increase people’s skills.

I always knew education was important. A better education is the primary route to improving someone’s chances of making a productive contribution to our society, not least because it increases their prospects of getting a better paid job, which in turn enables them to contribute more to our public services through the taxes they pay. But my work with the CBI in the last few years has given me the opportunity to get a much clearer sense of just how directly educational outcomes impact on the competitiveness of our economy and the prosperity of our region. Last year the CBI launched its Regional Growth Project, which showed clearly that the number one driver that best correlated with economic growth in regional economies was secondary school outcomes.

The evidence very clearly points to the need for an improvement in educational standards for many thousands, if not millions, of young people – especially in the northern regions of England. The fact that there is a 10 per cent gap in attainment levels between 11-year olds in urban areas like Leeds and Newcastle, compared to their contemporaries in inner city London is evidence enough for me that change is not only possible, but necessary. This is not about diminishing one part of the country to favour another, quite the reverse. It is widely accepted that when our Northern regions do well, England does well.

It was through my work with the CBI that I was introduced to the Academy Ambassador program. That presented me with the opportunity to get back engaged in the governance and leadership of education in my community, but this time it was as a trustee – or non-executive director – of the multi-academy trust that incorporates eight of the schools in Pontefract. I soon realised how much more responsibility rested with that organisation – and therefore with its Board. I also came to appreciate just how much benefit could be brought to trust boards by introducing skills, knowledge and practices that, often, we take for granted in the business world. Simple things that could improve efficiency in everyday working, right through to the routines that help to support making bigger, larger-scale decisions that have far-reaching effects on the whole trust. It’s certainly not a question of trying to second-guess the great education professionals I work with on how to educate children and run a school day-to-day.  A lot of it comes down to constructive challenge, scrutiny and questioning of ‘why’ the academies within the trust, and the board itself, do things the way they do.

Often, gaps occur in trust boards, where people have left and not been replaced, or a requirement emerges for a particular set of skills as a result of growth – skills that were perhaps never previously needed, or deemed appropriate by the trust board. And it doesn’t always relate to skills or issues in and around the Board itself. In my short period of exposure to this world, it’s already obvious that there are opportunities for business professionals to add value in support of a board’s activities – maybe on an Academy Governance Committee, or in a specialist area of support activity like HR or IT.

For that reason, I’m a strong advocate of what I sometimes refer to as ‘vertical cross sections’, which we’re actively exploring in Northern Powergrid as a means of tapping into the potential that exists at all levels of a company to draw alongside educational institutions and add tailored support in the areas that make most sense for that particular situation at that particular time. I think having someone senior involved at Board level provides a business leader with a great vantage point over the opportunities that exist to target the effort.

Lots of businesses have quite significant community, stakeholder or corporate social responsibility programs and Northern Powergrid is no different. I find that one of the challenges in this space is picking the right areas to pitch in and help – how to create the maximum benefit. I’m convinced that having a ready pool of talent and expertise to help meet the needs of an Academy Trust, just as they do day to day in their own companies, can make a huge difference to the Trust’s work. It’s relatively early days for us – but we’re committed to making it work.

I am a big believer in the positive impact that business is capable of having on the education landscape. But I also am sure that the benefit flows back very quickly – in terms of development opportunities for our own people and the sense of engagement that it creates. 

Phil will be speaking at the Academy Ambassadors Board Development Day – register to attend and find out more.