School with call centre training site in classroom criticised for lowering pupils' expectations
London Guardian | July 23, 2007
A secondary school which has opened an on-site call centre where pupils can practise selling mobile phone contracts and answering customer complaints has been criticised for lowering children's expectations.
The centre, at Hylton Red House school in Sunderland, was set up with the help of EDF Energy, which runs its own call centre a couple of miles away. Pupils taking the "preparation course" - worth half a GCSE - answer queries from computer-generated customers.
The assistant headteacher, Helen Elderkin, said the scheme gave 15- and 16-year-olds a wide range of skills that would help them to get a job or continue with their education.
However, Howard Brown, secretary of the National Union of Teachers in Sunderland, said schools had a duty to educate pupils rather than turn out efficient, pliant workers. "We do have to equip our children for a variety of different jobs, but I think this is a step too far," he said.
"It seems that this is going back to the old days when we told children round here that they had to go straight down the mines when they left. Now the mines have gone and we are saying they have to go and work in a call centre. We have an obligation to give them a bit more than that."
The first group of pupils graduated from the scheme last week, and Ms Elderkin said it had been a huge success. "It gives them a great deal of confidence and it allowed them to get a taste of a real working environment. Until now they have not been able to have this kind of experience until they left school."
Staff from EDF Energy helped to turn a classroom at the school into a call centre called Train 4 Life.
"This has been a great example of working closely with business and the City of Sunderland College," said Ms Elderkin. "The children approached us because they wanted something different and together we came up with a call centre. These lessons give them real confidence as well as skills in IT and communication that will help whether they stay in education or go out and look for work."
The school was deemed to be failing last year, although it has improved and was recently taken out of special measures. It has signed up to the government's academy programme and will reopen in a new building in 2009.
Most of its pupils come from estates just outside Sunderland with high levels of deprivation and unemployment.
Ms Elderkin said that the call centre course, which is also open to adults in the area, was part of a wider attempt to support the community. "We are committed to raising pupils' aspirations and offering adults, many of them former pupils, every opportunity to access training and employment that is going to be of real benefit," she said.
Angela Bryan, 15, said the call centre course had already proved popular with pupils and at the school. "A lot of people want to do it because it teaches us how to use computers better and about getting used to dealing with people on the telephone." Another pupil, Vicky Ward, said: "It's like proper work experience and that means it is useful, which makes it more popular."
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