North East businesses are being called on to help tackle growing disparity in educational attainment in the region.
Business and education leaders gathered at auditing firm Deloitte’s Newcastle office to discuss the challenge and to hear more about Deloitte’s Access Programme - a scheme in conjunction with charity Teach First which puts Deloitte staff in front of pupils at schools in the region.
The programme allows Deloitte staff to work with pupils on areas such as character and culture, enterprise skills, leadership and raising aspirations and employability.
A roundtable debate turned the spotlight on statistics showing that just 19% of pupils from low-income communities in the North East receive five good GCSEs and only 12% progress to higher education.
Rebecca Earnshaw, the director of regional schools network, Schools North East, said she was positive the North East could be held up as an example of educational turnaround, in the same way the London Challenge has successfully addressed inner city schools in the capital.
She was supported by Teach First North East director Paul Green, who said the region had the all assets required to become an exemplar of interaction between business and education.
Deloitte chairman David Cruickshank was in Newcastle to help promote the Access Programme and discuss how businesses and educational institutions could work together more effectively.
Outlining the scheme to The Journal, Mr Cruickshank said: “There has been an insatiable thirst for Teach First around the country, not least in the North East.
“The Access Programme is really a natural progression for us. Every year we recruit about 11,000 graduates and school leavers. Training and development is in the DNA of the company, and it makes sense for us put our expertise to good use.
“It’s not just about CSR for us. Our staff get an enormous amount out of doing this. It thrusts them into an unfamiliar social setting and broadens their perspectives.
“I’m quite at home speaking to a board room full of businessmen or regulators, but some of the hardest questions I have ever faced are from school children. This really is a two-way street for us as a business.”
To allay apprehension about businesses becoming commercially linked schools, Mr Cruickshank said the approach was sensitive to such concerns.
He added: “This is very much about exposing pupils to people from other environments. There is a huge disconnect between the jobs that young people express interests in and the jobs actually available in the labour market.
“Our role is in revealing options that might not be apparent to them - and that’s across all industries, not just our own. Organisations like Deloitte can use their networks to draw workers from all sectors to engage with pupils.”
Paul Feechan, senior partner at Deloitte in the North East, said the programme delivered some of Deloitte’s brightest workers to schools with the aim to inspire pupils who may not otherwise have professional role models in their lives.
James Westhead, Teach First executive director, was at the event to encourage more of the business community to get involved with the charity.
Teach First trains top performing graduates and places them in partner schools for two years, with the aim of creating education leaders.
Mr Westhead said: “We see that 56% of Teach First starters since 2009 have remained in teaching. Many of those who go off to do other things still become school governors, or support education in some way.”