How to do great employer engagement: practice sharing for schools and colleges

This guide is for senior leaders and teachers in schools and colleges. Links to underpinning evidence are provided if you would like to investigate aspects in more detail.

Why partner with employers?

A culture of employer engagement in schools/colleges is essential to prepare young people for today’s complex world of work. Employers need to be valued as equal partners recognising the importance of proactive engagement in education to their business. Employer engagement in their education is important for all young people so they can take advantage, and make best use, of all their talents.

Specifically, the purpose of employer/education partnerships is to help young people to:

  • make well-informed career decisions
  • be aware of the requirements of the world of work from an early age
  • reflect on the relevance of what they learn at school to their futures
  • develop social or personal skills, including employability skills
  • develop networks in the world of work during and after leaving school
  • benefit from a culture of expectation and aspiration
  • progress their admission to university courses or apprenticeships
  • develop their knowledge of local and national skills gaps
  • increase their engagement in, and motivation to, learn

The 5th International Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training: 2018 provides evidence and illustrations of employer engagement in education.

A review by Education and Employers of international evidence identified four broad areas of employer engagement in education that could benefit young people:

  1. Boosting young people’s understanding of jobs and careers

    Broadening and raising career aspirations and supporting young people to make decisions on what to study, where to study, and how hard to study.

  2. Providing the knowledge and skills demanded by the contemporary labour market

    Helping young people to build the skills that modern workplaces need, such as crweative problem-solving and team-working.

  3. Providing the knowledge and skills demanded for successful school-to-work transitions

    Giving young people relevant work experiences as well as practical insights into how recruitment processes work and contemporary workplaces operate.

  4. Enriching education and underpinning pupil attainment

    Using employers to support teaching resources for the classroom and helping young people to see the connection between what they learn at school and employment outcomes.

Levels of partnership and definitions

Key factors to consider before starting to build partnerships:

Types of employer engagement

What type and level of activity do you want to develop initially and/or how do you want to further extend your existing engagement? The following diagram illustrates different types of employer engagement with examples:

Commitment levels

What level of commitment from your partner employer(s) do you want to develop initially and/or what level are they happy to provide? For example, one source defined employer involvement and engagement:

Employer involvement means that employers actively participate in activities such as the design, implementation and assessment of a qualification or an ongoing programme of work experience involving preparing young people and enabling reflection and consolidation of learning.

Employer engagement tends to refer to less involvement, for example employers being surveyed or providing work experience with little or no involvement with the school or the young people before or after the work experience.

A study of University Technical Colleges found that there is a range of approaches currently used to engage and liaise with employers and to utilise their input into the design and delivery of the curriculum. At its most profound level, some UTCs have relationships with employers where they are co-developing and delivering projects, with employers taking ownership of curriculum units.

Routes to employment

When considering how to build partnerships with employers, be sure all stakeholders (teachers, employers, senior managers, young people and their parents) are aware of the possible routes to employment and how they interlink so they are able to provide informed support to career decision making.

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships offer an alternative (to A Levels) route to employment. Apprenticeship levels and their equivalent educational levels are listed below:

Name Level Equivalent educational level
Intermediate 2 5 GCSE passes at grades A* to C
Advanced 3 2 A level passes
Higher 4,5,6 and 7 Foundation degree and above
Degree 6 and 7 Bachelor’s or master’s degree

The National Apprenticeship Service website is the official website for general information about apprenticeships in England.

The Institute for Apprenticeships empowers employers to help them create high-quality apprenticeships. It works with employer groups called Trailblazers to develop apprenticeship standards and assessment plans. The Institute’s role is to ensure that apprenticeships meet the needs of employers and learners alike.

Traineeships

A traineeship is an education and training programme with work-experience that prepares young people for their future careers by helping them to become ‘work ready’.

Designed to help young people aged 16 to 24 who don’t yet have the appropriate skills or experience, traineeships provide the essential work preparation training, English, maths and work-experience needed to secure an apprenticeship or employment.

T Levels

T Levels are new 2-year, technical programmes designed with employers to give young people the skills that industry needs. From 2020, they will give students aged 16 to 18 a technical alternative to A levels and will help them to get a skilled job. T Levels will provide a mixture of:

  • technical knowledge and practical skills specific to their chosen industry or occupation
  • an industry placement of at least 45 days in their chosen industry or occupation
  • relevant maths, English and digital skills
  • common workplace skills

How to build partnerships

Secure senior leadership buy-in and develop a receptive institution-wide culture

Successful change to become an outward-facing institution, that partners with employers in the best interests of young people, begins with establishing school- or college-wide buy-in to the need for change.

Buy-in from senior management in schools and businesses is essential. A named person should drive school-employer links and partnerships. A clear vision and strategic thinking of what the collaboration seeks to achieve is required.

Developing a vision and business case will ensure senior leadership and all staff commitment to achieving a shared goal. See ‘features of successful school-employer relationships’ (pg 22) at the following link for more information on the importance of having a clear vision of what your school-employer relationship wants to achieve.

Dedicate time/develop capacity to build partnerships

Ensure that you have a dedicated team that has the active leadership of a senior leader who also has dedicated, ring-fenced time allocated to the role and can provide strategic direction.

Start small, audit, plan and do it well

To gain an overall picture of your institution’s current position and to identify areas for further development, carry out an audit of existing employer-related activities. In many schools and colleges there are a number of interactions with employers but they are not coordinated across the school or college. Carrying out an audit helps to create a single shared picture of the current position, allowing you to build on strengths and identify gaps. Examples of audit tools are below:

Audit Tools

Careers guidance and employer involvement should be embedded in the school culture. The Gatsby audit framework (below) provides a good overarching assessment tool to help you monitor your current activity. This can help you plan your next steps.

A stable careers programme
Every school and college should have an embedded programme of career education and guidance that is known and understood by students, parents, teachers, governors and employers.
Learning from career and labour market information
Every student, and their parents, should have access to good quality information about future study options and labour market opportunities. They will need the support of an informed adviser to make best use of available information.
Addressing the needs of each student
Students have different career guidance needs at different stages. Opportunities for advice and support need to be tailored to the needs of each student. A school's careers programme should embed quality and diversity considerations throughout.
Linking curriculum learning to careers
All teachers should link curriculum learning with careers. STEM subject teachers should highlight the relevance of STEM subjects for a wide range of future career paths.
Encounters with employers and employees
Every student should have multiple opportunities to learn from employers about work, employment and the skills that are valued in the workplace. This can be though a range of enrichment activities including visiting speakers, mentoring and enterprise schemes.
Experiences of workplaces
Every student should first-hand experiences of the workplace through work visits, work shadowing and/or work experience to help their exploration of career opportunities, and expand their networks.
Encounters with further and higher education
All students should understand the full range of learning opportunities that are available to them. This includes both academic and vocational routes and learning in schools, colleges, universities and in the workplace.
Personal guidance
Every student should have opportunities for guidance interviews with a career adviser, who could be internal (a member of school staff) or external, provided they are trained to an appropriate level. These should be available whenever significant study or career choices are being made. THey should be expected for all students but should be timed to meet their individual needs.

The North East Local Enterprise Panel worked with Gatsby to develop an online tool called Compass. Recently, all schools and colleges in the UK were informed about the launch of Compass – Careers Benchmark tool. Compass is a self-assessment tool for schools and sixth forms in England that they can use to gain a greater understanding of their careers education and guidance provision and to compare their provision to the Gatsby Benchmarks as well as the national average. It has been co-funded by The Careers & Enterprise Company and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. Compass works by asking schools to answer a series of questions about the careers and enterprise provision they offer. It’s available at Compass.


To help you plan further actions, here are three specific tools on careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) and work experience that you can use to support action planning:

Careers engagement: a good practice brief for leaders of schools and colleges.

This brief highlights the principles of effective careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) as evidenced and agreed by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL); the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL); the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER); and the 157 Group. It outlines how to audit and establish CEIAG priorities (including employer engagement); how to put plans into practice using some suggested methods and tools; and, finally, how to review, evaluate and revise the plan.

Top Tips for senior leaders in schools and colleges: How to provide meaningful experience of the world of work for young people as part of 16 to 19 study programmes.

How to implement the London Ambitions Careers Offer: an accessible PowerPoint guide for senior leaders and teachers on how to deliver careers education and guidance within some London schools and colleges.

Use connections with the world of work

Having established senior leadership buy-in and conducted an audit of existing employer activities, make a list of all your institution’s possible connections (including governors’) with the world of work so that you can make the most of these links to progress your priorities. Alumni, parental and governor networks are used routinely in independent schools to secure experience of the world of work for students and develop their social capital. You will also want to check what other organisations, such as Education Business Partnerships, operate locally to help you make connections to employers.

One of our governors professor X is... senior at an NHS foundation trust... we had a meeting and wanted [pupils] to go in and do some work [experience], and they did quite a lot of work and they produced presentations to the board, to the CEO, in the foyer of [large London hospital]... all their photographs, all their recommendations and they have to do that and they have to stand up and give a speech about it. Now that is putting them on the spot, it may be a bit uncomfortable, they have to do the work... but it’s going to resonate far more if they do that than if they shadowed [someone] (Teacher pg 20)

One of the obvious advantages that independent schools must have and you must find this in almost every survey you do of a school that there is always this point of reference from boys and girls that have been at the school... who have become successful... ok, they’re asked to come back... so we’re very, very lucky…so I think this is what one of the aspects of privilege is, not about how much money you’ve got but how you have this contact... (Teacher pg 18)

Be proactive with corporate and SMEs

Engage with large corporates and small - and medium - sized employers (SMEs) and raise awareness of your school or college within your local business community. Once contact is established, take the lead in briefing the employer on the type of activity they want to be involved in, by for example providing notes on the expectations of both the employer and the school or college. This takes time but results in more focused and impactful activity which is targeted at the students’ level and interests. Where this doesn’t happen, activity can be disappointing for both parties. Keep in contact with the employer and provide updates on student progress.

You can approach businesses in different ways – appealing to the Corporate Social Responsibility element of a large company, or pitching the opportunity to work in your school to help secure their future workforce.

Often SMEs are harder to engage but it is vital that young people are aware of them as they will employ the majority of young people entering the workforce.

How schools, colleges and SMEs can work together to improve young people’s employability skills: connect card

Actively involve employers to prepare young people prior to work experience placements and other forms of interaction and have a well-regulated system to record, monitor and review employer involvement. For example, the employer could meet the young people at the college/school before commencement of the placement and young people could reflect on their experience in a systematic way after completion.

Aim to provide a range of employer activities

Employers enrich education delivery through a range of activities including curriculum enrichment and real-life learning, for example:

  • providing curriculum materials
  • site visits
  • career talks
  • real-life projects/challenges
  • themed days (e.g. enterprise days), mentoring
  • work experience

Consider ways that employers can enrich education delivery

Don’t stop at work experience – think about other ways in which employers can deepen and enrich your pupils’ connection to the world of work. The following tips from the Education and Employers Taskforce suggest a diverse range of ways to make the most out of employer activities and their benefits:

  1. A lot of little goes a long way when it comes to employer engagement

    Young adults who have greater levels of contact with employers whilst at school are significantly less likely to be NEET and can expect, when in full-time employment, to earn up to 18% more than peers who had no such workplace exposure.

  2. Start young and make them think about what they’ve learnt

    The effects of employer engagement can be witnessed most powerfully in influencing attitudes and assumptions which young people begin forming from early childhood (primary years): do girls really become engineers or boys work in childcare?

  3. Pupils should do a load of different things over their school lives

    Teachers with first-hand experience of a wide range of employer engagement activities (careers events, enterprise days, work experience, workplace visits, mentoring etc) argue that different ones are more effective in achieving different outcomes like increasing attainment, helping in decision-making or improving employability skills. Mix it up to in terms of activities to get the best results.

  4. Schools should do something about the fact that all kids are not the same

    Where a pupil is from (socially, economically, geographically) influences their access to, and interaction with, employer engagement opportunities at home and in school, especially when it comes to work experience. Employer engagement should be thought of as a resource. Some young people need more help than others from schools in accessing experiences of real value which speak to their emerging ambitions.

  5. Young people’s view of the labour market is like seeing the world through Mr Magoo glasses – they need help to get perspective

    Ask teenagers where their aspirations lie and one-third are chasing just ten jobs. Most young people have an incredibly poor understanding of the labour market, their career aspirations routinely have nothing in common with projected labour market demand. With teenage part-time working rapidly dying out, schools are more important than ever in helping explore young people to get any taste of the working world and to explore its breath

  6. They don’t know what they don’t know – sometimes a little coercion is right and proper

    Assumptions shape attitudes and attitudes guide decisions and the assumptions that teenagers have about jobs and careers are often very deeply held. Research highlights the long term significance of assumptions, for example, about the type of people who go to university or do an Apprenticeship, the sorts of careers pursued by boys or girls, whether ‘people like me’ do science or not. Career carousels where pupils work their way around a room spending 5-10 minutes with volunteers from a wide variety of different careers is a perfect way to challenge often unspoken assumptions and build confidence through speaking and listening.

Use online resources to inform the development of curriculum activities. For example see: Engineering UK, Careers Ready, #iwill Resources, icould.com, oppsinbucks.org, valuesmoneyandme.co.uk and London Ambitions Careers Curriculum.

Ensure partnerships are mutually beneficial

Know your local employers, understand their needs and develop a flexible solution that benefits all parties. Be receptive to the local context and use innovative approaches to employer engagement.

How to maintain partnerships

Value employers as partners

Further to ensuring that employers’ contributions are valued by, and beneficial to both the school/college and the employer, strive to provide a ‘feel good factor’ for employers.

This doesn’t have to be hugely costly in terms of time or resource to be effective. The following example illustrates this point.

Develop an embedded system for employer involvement

Ideally, employer engagement will be embedded in a systematic way across departments and key stages. The following links provide examples:

  1. Resources have been developed by Tideway, the company delivering the Thames Tideway Tunnel ‘super sewer’. They are part of the drive to raise interest and uptake in STEM related careers, develop employability skills in young people, and to support the broader curriculum;
  2. Resources have been developed by one secondary academy to introduce a property development course developed by Land Securities in partnership with Construction Youth Trust’s Budding Brunels programme.

Recognise that quality of partnerships is more important than quantity

Developing high quality relationships with a small number of employers is a more productive approach than trying to maintain relationships with many employers. The following examples illustrate how one school and one academy developed high quality partnerships with selected employers:

How to move towards profound partnerships

‘Profound’ employer engagement is one of the key characteristics of UTCs. The pattern of employer engagement found in UTCs is:

  • stretching across a wide range of activities and involving both staff and pupils
  • engaging individual employers in multiple activities relevant to young people through their school careers
  • an accepted part of the UTC culture, regularly encountered by students and staff alike.

To move towards profound employer engagement, you need to enable high volumes of varied employer activity which is strategically integrated into school/college provision. You also need to enable close collaboration across

Embed employer involvement in the school/college strategy, curriculum and culture

Having started to link employer involvement across the school/college, move towards embedding practice routinely within the curriculum – not just in PSHE or careers lessons but in the core subjects as well.

In addition to the online resources to inform the development of curriculum activities above, explore further for ways to embed employer engagement into the curriculum to suit your school’s/college’s needs. For example, Mykindafuture provides lesson plans, employer guides, and toolkits and teaching notes.

Team London provides lesson plans to prepare young people for a Speed Networking Event.

Use lessons learnt

FE colleges and UTCs have extensive experience of working in partnership with employers to inform, review and evaluate the effectiveness and impact of practice and build on what has worked well.

  1. Teach Too provide case studies and videos on their Excellence Gateway website. These highlight how employers are supporting providers in the co-design and delivery of vocational programmes: Teach Too initiative
  2. Students felt that their experience of studying engineering at a UTC was greatly enhanced by the involvement of industrial sponsors. Students valued the involvement of employers and were impressed by the authenticity of industrial engagement:

    What I like is that the school’s involved with like loads of companies and it’s not like pretend, it’s real. Like at other schools it’s like just pretend you’re going to do some work for a company but this is real like you’re speaking to the manager of a company and it’s real life, it’s not pretend anymore.

  3. Early experience of UTCs and Studio Schools suggests that ‘profound’ engagement may have significant benefits in terms of student motivation, achievement and progression. The pattern of employer engagement found in UTCs stretches across a wide range of activities and involves both staff and pupils; engages individual employers in multiple activities; and is relevant to young people through their school careers; an accepted part of the UTC culture; and regularly encountered by students and staff alike.

    Profound engagement is further identifiable through three distinguishing characteristics. Staff and pupils within a typical UTC would be expected to engage with employers: on many more occasions than peers across wider secondary; across a much wider range of activities than peers across wider secondary education and engagement within a UTC would be expected to sit firmly within coherent approaches to teaching and learning and pupil progression.

Encourage teacher placements in industry

Update teachers’ knowledge and confidence in talking about the local labour market by facilitating teachers working with local employers wherever possible. Consider the following three examples of effective practice: