FOR more than a decade, Stephanie Burras has been campaigning tenaciously to tackle the social and economic problems caused by Britain’s terrible skills deficit.
The former lawyer has worked with leading figures in the worlds of business and education to ensure that children from a wide variety of backgrounds have the chance to pursue rewarding careers.
The social enterprise she established – the Leeds-based Ahead Partnership – encourages businesses to mentor pupils to help make them more employable. The next stage in this project will lead to many young people around Bradford and Doncaster receiving the guidance they need to take their first steps on the career ladder.
With support from the Careers & Enterprise Company, the national network that connects schools and colleges with employers, the Ahead Partnership has been able to support tens of thousands of secondary school students since 2016.
“The idea is to raise aspirations.” Ms Burras said. “Doncaster and Bradford have been designated as opportunity areas by the Government and have been awarded some additional funding, which in part, the Careers & Enterprise Company have been distributing.
“These areas have significant opportunities. Bradford, for instance has the fastest growing young population in the country.
“We will be working next year across both areas, with employers, to deliver really exciting activities to over 35,000 young people just in Doncaster and Bradford. We’ll be doing enterprise work, growth sector industry days, interview practice, employability skills work and careers activities.
“The businesses lead all the activities but we co-ordinate and organise all of them. We’re looking for businesses to engage in the programme from all sorts of sectors, including the digital sector and the business services and professional services sector.
“We’re also looking for businesses in manufacturing and engineering. Health and social care will feature very strongly as well. It will be any business that would like to give something back and play its part in helping to solve the skills gap and helping to prepare young people more effectively for work.”
Over the last 12 years, the Ahead Partnership has worked with more than 2,000 businesses and partner organisations. It has helped around 200,000 young people to find the opportunities they need to progress.
The Ahead Partnership joined forces with the investment bank Goldman Sachs in 2010 to help bring its global entrepreneurship programme – 10,000 Small Businesses – to the UK.
The programme was piloted in Yorkshire and delivered for five years by Leeds University Business School, with the Ahead Partnership’s support.
Through Make the Grade, the Ahead Partnership delivers skills projects that aim to integrate the worlds of business with education. This programme has been extended across the country after being established in Yorkshire.
The programme supports more than 60,000 young people a year. It was judged best education and business partnership nationally in the British Chamber Awards 2017. Today, Ahead’s team is more than 25-strong and the business is headquartered in Leeds with a presence in Birmingham, London and Sheffield.
It came into existence because Ms Burras decided to make a bold career move. Many of Ms Burras’s colleagues were shocked when she decided to abandon a lucrative career in law to establish a social enterprise.
She recalled: “I moved up from London in 1996 at a time when the legal services sector was really starting to take off in Leeds.
“Once I became a partner, I volunteered to set up a link with a school in south Leeds that, at the time, was failing very significantly.
“I thought, ‘What could we as a firm do to help this school and help the young people in terms of accessing a better future?’”
“We came up with a variety of different programmes that we worked with in the school around literacy and numeracy. We created an amazing maths programme.”
Ms Burras became a mentor and she saw that there was a huge amount of inspiration and practical advice that could be brought into schools from the world of work.
“At the time, when I made the decision to leave the partnership and start out in this work, in some respects, it was a very drastic decision, which did affect me financially,’’ she said. “ It was a leap of faith, to some extent.
“I saw what we, as just a few people from one business in this city, had managed to achieve, and I saw what we had all got out of it as well, which went beyond the warm fluffy feelings of helping people.
“It was quite challenging work but really worthwhile for us, as much as it was helpful for young people.”
So she took the plunge and formed Leeds Ahead – which is now the Ahead Partnership – to use the strength of the private sector to enhance social mobility.
Twelve years later, Ms Burras is the proud recipient of a CBE and she has seen many young people flourish with support from the enterprise she established.
She believes the success of the Ahead Partnership demonstrates that the private sector can create social change.
But in order to be effective, engagement between education and business has to be co-ordinated.
“It is helping young people to make better decisions,’’ she said. “It’s that critical relationship or information delivered at just the right time to inspire young people and enable them to see that they do have opportunities.
“It’s about how excited they feel about their future and how motivated they are,” she added.
“If you don’t deliver these messages they will never get any of that information.
“But if you do it, and you go in and have these conversations with young people, you will inspire them and you will help them to make better decisions.
“If you do that at scale, you can provide them with a richness of information and the ability to make better informed decisions.
“In some cases, they are young people who would not be able to access that network of people.
“That is a vital tool for social mobility. As a community of working people in our city, we have that duty to ensure that no young people are denied that.”
Name: Stephanie Burras CBE
Title: Chief executive the Ahead Partnership, a social enterprise which was founded in Leeds to improve links between business and education.
Last book read: A biography of General William Slim, who led the ‘forgotten’ 14th army that re-invaded Burma after the war.
Favourite holiday destination: India
Car driven: Ford Focus Estate, because it’s big enough to put my harp in!
Favourite piece of music: The Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The thing she is most proud of: It’s got to be the work that we as a team have built and are building around the Ahead Partnership.