independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Schools are open for business in bid to forge links with real world

Big employers are sending their employees into the classroom to teach. Kim Bielenberg reports

Top of the class: Susan Bannigan, Mercy College, Sligo, with Conor Murphy, from Abbott, and deputy principal Ann Gorby. James Connolly

Together with fellow students in her class, the publishing prodigy Susan Bannigan produced a range of books for children while she was in transition year at Mercy College in Sligo.

The books published by the group gave younger kids advice on cyberbullying, bereavement, family separation and even how to deal with the death of a pet.

Susan and her class were given guidance on how to run their new publishing company under one of the mentoring schemes run by Junior Achievement Ireland.

Stephanie Reddy, an executive from the multinational healthcare company Abbott, went to the school and gave the girls business tips, based on her personal experience.

Susan, who is now in sixth year, says: "It was great to have someone coming in to help us over a few weeks when we were setting up our company.

"We got the idea of doing the books after someone came in to give a talk from Childline. We wanted to produce guides that younger children could understand easily.

"I wrote the books and we had to do market research, have them printed and sell them locally. We managed to get to the finals of the Junior Achievement awards."

All over the country, thousands of employees of businesses -- including some of the biggest corporations in the world -- are going into schools to act as mentors and instructors.

Last year, 3,000 volunteers ventured into the classroom to tutor students and give them advice on the world of work, business and science. Junior Achievement devises these courses.

In some companies, such as Abbott, volunteering to work in local schools is actively encouraged, and even senior executives get involved.

Conor Murphy has an extremely busy job as the site director at Abbott Ireland's diagnostics division in Sligo.

As well as running the operation in the north west, he travels extensively in Europe and the United States, but he still finds time volunteer in local schools.

"I have volunteered for eight years. I would go into a school every week over a five week period.

"As a volunteer, I would be trained by Junior Achievement to give these courses."

There are a number of different programmes, and these are carefully planned. The volunteer is supplied with materials for the course and receives training.

"I try to impart as much knowledge from my job as possible," says Conor.

"I take the theory of the course they are following and then apply it to my career and my experiences, and tell them about what happens in local businesses."

An important part of these programmes is to encourage students to stay in education.

Junior Achievement tends to concentrate on schools which have high numbers of disadvantaged students.

"One of the ideas is to open up the students' minds to different opportunities, and enable them to learn where they want to go career-wise," says Conor.

"For Abbot,t there is a strong interest in having a well-educated workforce."

So how do these mentoring programmes benefit the students and the businesses themselves?

Anne Gorby, the vice principal of Mercy College, who teaches the transition year mini-company course in her school, says: "It is always good for people who work in various fields to come in to tell the students about their experiences.

"It makes the students less insular, and gives them an idea of what they might be studying for. It shows them that they have something to aim for in the future. These programmes also teach presentation skills, which are becoming increasingly important. The students have to go out and talk about their business idea."

Helen Raftery, chief executive of Junior Achievement Ireland, says: "We see our role as making the connection between the real world and what is happening in the classroom. That helps to stop kids leaving school too early.

"We try to ensure that the volunteers from businesses suit the classes they are going into. You might have some employees who feel comfortable talking to young children, while others are better suited to the older age groups."

"In some schools it gives the students male role models. That is important since the teaching profession has become very feminised. It also encourages girls to think beyond some of the careers they would have normally considered, such as hairdressing, working in shops, or staying at home."

According to Helen Raftery, these programmes also bring benefits to the companies involved.

"A lot of large employers are now keen to encourage the idea of good corporate citizenship. They want to be involved in the local community.

"Employees learn skills themselves by going into schools. They have to be well-prepared to give presentations, because students will not let them away with anything. That is a useful skill to learn for the workplace.

"Staff come back saying that it has increased their employee satisfaction."

Irish Independent

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