Schools Connect joins forces with ABCN to strengthen school-business partnerships

Schools Connect Australia has merged with the Australian Business and Community Network (ABCN), to enable more schools and companies to access its increasingly popular partnership program called Business Class.

Both education support organisations specialise in partnering high-needs schools with companies to lift the outcomes of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Business Class program is run by Schools Connect and is mainly based in Victoria and Tasmania.  It matches companies with high schools in disadvantaged communities that need help.

Each partnership is driven by the needs of each school. The partnerships cover defined areas – school leadership and governance, the curriculum, employability for students – as well as issues specific to each school.

The not-for-profit organisations agreed to merge after conducting an extensive review.

Ms Annemarie Rolls, Schools Connect’s Chief Executive Officer, said the merger with ABCN would enable more schools in Victoria and elsewhere to have access to the Business Class program.  She said schools and companies in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia were keen to join the program.

“By merging with a national organisation that has resources on the ground and a broad base of business membership, Business Class will be able to grow more quickly, especially at a national level,” Ms Rolls said.

“It makes sense from a practical point of view. We’ll have greater resources to accelerate the program’s roll out across Australia.

“It also makes sense because both organisations share the same mission – to partner businesses with schools in order to improve the opportunities and outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

ABCN runs mentoring and scholarship programs for disadvantaged students in almost 200 schools across Australia. It will operate Business Class as a core program and oversee its expansion nationwide.

Existing Business Class partnerships will continue under the new arrangement and some Schools Connect board members will join the ABCN board.

Ms Jacqui Jones, ABCN’s Chief Executive, said many of ABCN’s member companies would welcome the chance to get involved in the Business Class program.

She said the merger would make it easier for schools to be matched with a business partner. ABCN’s members include some of Australia’s largest companies.

“There’s a strong strategic alignment between Schools Connect and ABCN,” Ms Jones said. “The merger allows us to increase our reach to more students and businesses.

“Combining our organisations will ensure the most efficient use of resources and allow us to increase our impact.”

ABCN was established in 2005. It is funded by the business community and led by an experienced group of company CEOs who participate in ABCN programs and encourage their employees to do the same.

Schools Connect is an independent organisation established in 2010 with funding from the Victorian Department of Education and Training and Schools Connect’s business partners.

ABCN and Schools Connect are both aligned with the UK-based Business in The Community (BITC), a business-led charity that originally created the Business Class program. Business Class operates in more than 500 schools in the UK.

Schools Connect established the program in Australia two years ago. Eight high schools are already partnered with businesses. Their partner companies include KPMG, Lendlease, Australia Post, Experian, Cambridge University Press, Gilbert + Tobin and Watersure.

Mr Michael Ullmer, Schools Connect’s chairman, said he was proud to have been involved in successfully establishing Business Class in Australia.

“Schools Connect is a great example of the Victorian Government working with enlightened organisations like KPMG and Lendlease to bring to Australia world class programs such as Business Class,” Mr Ullmer said.  “We’ve demonstrated that the program can have strategic application across the school system to help disadvantaged students realise their potential.

“The merger with ABCN is a case study in the power of not-for-profits being able to combine their resources to deliver better outcomes for those in greatest need. It’s a win-win, and a success story I am proud to have been a part of.”

Ms Rolls said a large number of Australian companies have expressed interest in joining the Business Class program. But it was taking longer than expected – up to a year – to work through the process that leads to a new business joining. She said the merger would make the process quicker and more efficient.

Each Business Class partnership between a school and a business is established with a minimum three-year commitment.  Tim Harper, principal of Elisabeth Murdoch College in Langwarrin, a south-eastern suburb of Melbourne, said the program’s flexibility was one of its key advantages.

His school is partnered with Australia Post, whose top graduates recently designed a corporate immersion program with the students.

“The significant thing about the Business Class program that separates it from others is that it’s a bespoke program for each school and business,” Mr Harper said.

“It’s structured. It’s got a life of three years and hopefully longer.  Most importantly, it invests time in honing what the priorities are for the school.”

Companies and schools involved in the program reported on the progress of their partnerships at a recent symposium hosted by Schools Connect in Melbourne.

Senior company executives said the partnerships were already having a tangible impact on their staff as well as their partner schools. Many of the executives said the program had energised their employee training and professional development.

Julie Kirk, HR Director of Experian Australia Pacific, said employee engagement and fulfilment were some of the biggest challenges facing all employers.

Her company is partnered with McClelland College in Frankston. About a quarter of Experian’s Melbourne staff are involved with McClelland College in curriculum activities and a range of other projects.

“The biggest and best output in our business is the discretionary effort of our people (staff),” Ms Kirk said.

“Our people have told us that spending time in the community, particularly with a school like McClelland College, helps them accelerate in their development, it inspires them and enables them to connect more deeply with everything we do as an organisation.”

The Business Class program has been so successful that Experian has expanded it to the company’s leadership development program.

Ms Kirk also said it was exciting to hear McClelland College students talk about their involvement with Business Class and how the program has encouraged them to consider going to university.

ABCN Chair, Helen Zimmerman, said the merger with Schools Connect positioned ABCN for the next ten years of successful partnerships between high-needs schools and businesses.

“ABCN member companies value the extraordinary work of principals and teachers in disadvantaged schools,” she said. “We are committed to assisting them and their students to reach their full potential at school and in the transitions to tertiary study or work through mentoring programs, and scholarships.”

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