During the pandemic, digital-first living has been accommodated in many situations, but schools have had to overcome some of the greatest challenges. Sam Mercer makes the case for greater brand involvement in education.

COVID-19 has put into sharp relief just how vital education is to children and teenagers – from multiple perspectives. A recent Ofsted report evaluated the toll of COVID-induced learning restrictions on children, finding clear evidence that their basic skills and learning regressed during this period. For the first time, children and parents across all socio-demographic groups understood the full impact of restricted access to education.

While March proved the biggest shock with all schools closed and the nation’s children tipped into remote learning en masse, the repercussions did not end with the easing of that lockdown. Since students returned in September, they have been faced with constant disruption as class bubbles, friendship groups and whole years have continued to be affected with outbreaks and self-isolations. With this ongoing impact it has never been more relevant to consider how government, brands and charities can work together on programmes to help children’s education.

The importance of real-world learning

In research Hopscotch Consulting conducted among 1,000 16- to 24-year-olds, 90% of respondents agreed that education is an important way to improve their prospects. In many ways, this is hardly surprising, but it is reassuring given the rise of Gen Z rejecting traditional paths into careers, such as university, as too costly for its limited guarantee of future success.

Because of this shift, there is increasing pressure on teachers to make sure the curriculum, and education in general, is brought to life through real-world learning. At the same time, some predictions suggest that 65% of current students are likely to enter the workforce doing jobs that don’t yet exist, meaning a teacher’s job now includes preparing students for the unknown.

Real-world learning has far-reaching benefits. Not only does it increase engagement in the classroom, but it also provides context to what is being learned, long-term social skills, the ability to analyse and make decisions, and then how to communicate those ideas.

For teachers with limited time and scope to source inspiration from the business world, there is a real opportunity for brands to establish relationships with schools and share reliable and cutting-edge knowledge and resources.

Students and teachers no longer perceive brands being involved in education as purely opportunistic and commercially motivated. Instead, it’s accepted that brands can have an authentic role to play. Our study found that 66% of 16- to 24-year-olds were welcoming of businesses supporting education with only 21% suspicious or skeptical of business involvement.

Businesses can bring insight, expertise and resource to education – a critical real-world perspective –while supporting young people in a measurable way, in keeping with long-term brand positioning. No more collecting coupons to exchange for equipment: brands can introduce sophisticated, purposeful education programmes with specific outcomes that fit with values and missions.

Examples of real-world learning

For example, we worked with Vodafone and partners Apps for Good and Teach First to create its new schools programme. The Digital Creators’ Challenge involved asking 11- to 14-year-olds to devise innovative app ideas to help solve a problem in their local community. The apps were entered into a national competition judged by Vodafone staff. Finalists gained insight into future careers, with an all-expenses paid trip to Vodafone’s headquarters to hear directly from its employees.

To ensure broad participation, bespoke App-In-A-Day workshops were delivered in the Government Opportunity Areas to ensure that all students, no matter what their background or school, could get involved – and 96% of students in attendance said they would consider taking a STEM subject based on what they learned in the workshop. More than 1,350 students (over half were girls) entered the competition from 99 schools.

In another piece of work with the Department of Transport on the Year of Engineering, we curated and developed an online schools hub to engage schools with the resources and opportunities offered by engineering bodies, corporations and charities – all aimed at showcasing the breadth and vibrancy of an engineering career. Activity included creating a FIFA-inspired STEM resource with relevant learning linked to the World Cup 2018 and an Apple-organised series of ‘AI robot coding workshops’ for students of all ages in Apple stores across the country.

The programme resulted in 10,000 visits to the school resource page and over 3,000 resource downloads. Research showed that the percentage of 7- to 11-year-olds who would consider a career in engineering had risen by 36%.

Schools and young people are willing to engage with those brands that demonstrate emotional connection and relevance to a real societal issue that they care about. Brands have the chance to engage and inspire Gen Z – their future employees and customers. This is the first generation that actively relates to brands on values and kindness, that looks for empathy rather than a purely commercial relationship, which means avenues are open for effective and appropriate education and brand relationships to flourish.

The guiding principles for brand involvement according to Gen Z

In a study by McKinsey looking at Gen Z and businesses, there was one overriding theme: this generation wants truth. That means that “businesses must rethink how they deliver value to the consumer, rebalance scale and mass production against personalisation, and – more than ever – practise what they preach when they address marketing issues and ethics”.

By associating with education, and extending brand attributes to young people’s learning, there is the opportunity – perhaps even an obligation – to boost students’ aspirations and improve their outcomes.

For brands that see a role for themselves in supporting education and the next generation there are five guiding principles for delivering impactful success:

  • Think about what they need, not what you think will be best for them: understand the areas where schools require support to ensure your brand is answering a clear need.

  • Offer relatability and representation: brands can help build young peoples’ aspirations by exposing them to future career options and making opportunities feel more attainable.

  • Play to your strengths: know what value you can bring to young people’s education but also understand your limits. Education professionals know what’s best for their students’ development and attainment.

  • The role of a teacher is different from most other professions: they often work 50+ hour weeks and spend more time with children and teenagers than anyone else. They are looking for simple, effective solutions that will add value to their students’ lives.
  • Teachers entered the profession to inspire young people to achieve their full potential: anything that helps them achieve this, adding value and support in a meaningful way, will be welcomed.

Education is about so much more than just exams and curriculum; it is about training the future workforce, looking after children’s mental health, creating the moments in life – the rites of passage – that mark progress into adulthood. Businesses can be champions and support moments along this journey. These children’s futures are essential for everyone’s futures.