Integrating education and business

Not all students want to start a business. A new college in London has taken a novel approach to involving learners in local enterprise.

Chef training group of studentsAlbert Einstein is said to have defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. When we merged Lewisham and Southwark colleges to form LeSoCo we knew that if we were to succeed, we needed to do something different from what each of the individual colleges had done before. This principle has underscored the way we are engaging with business, part of our drive to make sure that everything we do provides the opportunity for learners to get the skills they need for the job they want.

Bridging the gap between learning and work needs a strong bond between educators and the business community. We believe it must be about more than an occasional visit from an entrepreneur, useful as that might be. And although many entrepreneurship skills are transferable, the majority of students will achieve their goals as employees or volunteers rather than as owners. So when we started to think about how LeSoCo might blend learning with exposure to business, we took care not to assume that everyone would want to start a business, while supporting those who do. We decided to make sure that we developed an enterprising culture, and we encouraged a willingness to try new things and stimulate initiative.

Instead of thinking in terms of ‘business’ we now think about the ‘world of work’, whatever form it takes and however that satisfies our learners’ ambitions. It’s a subtle but important distinction; it means we don’t get stuck in a trendy entrepreneurship silo. A key part of this approach is the LeSoCo Enterprise Champions program.

Take our founding Enterprise Champions. We have Cyrus Todiwala, the celebrity TV chef, and his business partner, Pervin Todiwala, who is a hospitality expert with direct experience of world class brands. We also have Simeon Qsyea, a former student at Lewisham College who has worked as a choreographer with the likes of JLS. James Hasler is a public speaking trainer and actor, and Rick Lowe runs a successful business providing apparel to the gaming community. Dan Doherty runs two City businesses and mentors managers. They are a diverse group – and these examples are just the start – but what they share is a desire to provide help with practical skills, support, work experience and advocacy.

In addition, the program isn’t simply about bringing inspiring people into the classroom or getting learners into the workplace. Instead we aim to put the college at the heart of the business community, making it a place where like-minded Enterprise Champions can meet peers who place a high importance on the future skills of the local community they serve or from which they came. It’s a fellowship, and LeSoCo is taking its rightful position as a hub for these multilateral relationships. This means we are not simply reaching out to business and they are not simply ‘helping out’; we are sharing a vocational experience that benefits our Champions’ continued development.

Will it work? We believe it’s the best answer to a problem we’ve noticed and which was highlighted by recent research* by a leading recruitment company, Advanced Resource Managers (ARM) International. Take young adults, for example. A negative cycle has developed that has left 70 per cent of young adults knowing someone who has been told by potential employers to ‘get some experience and come back’. The same research suggested that one in two adults have been caught in the same trap and felt frustrated when they left school. Further, nearly 80 per cent of adults say that young people are more likely to get their first job more easily if they can prove they have hands-on experience. This is the thinking behind our scheme to build the bonds between local businesses, LeSoCo and tomorrow’s workforce.

Engaging with the world of work like this will go some way towards our goal of setting our learners apart. It will give them access to inspiring role models who are prepared to roll up their sleeves, and will help give them skills and experience to build classrooms without walls for a more rounded, and a more grounded, education.

*OnePoll interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults on 7 December 2012.

Maxine Room CBE is Principal and Chief Executive, LeSoCo.

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