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November 27, 2013

A beacon for school-community partnerships

Partnership is at the core of Beacon Foundation’s business both at the local and national level. Community engagement at the local level ensures effectiveness and drives sustainability allowing Beacon to move on to new communities and schools.

Beacon engages the local community and partners with national organisations to ensure sustainability and program effectiveness. Evaluation is key to creating and maintaining this engagement.

About Beacon

The Beacon Foundation (Beacon) creates pathways to meaningful employment, further education and training for disadvantaged high school students. For 25 years, it has done this by brokering relationships between schools, business and communities and developing schools’ capacity to partner with industry to create those pathways. Through this, it helps inform and inspire young people to make positive choices.

More than anything Beacon sees itself as changing the culture in how the school and community interact. It aims to do this in a sustainable way that doesn’t rely on Beacon’s ongoing involvement.

Many schools don’t see the need to engage with communities to get good outcomes.

In general it partners with a school and community for three years. After that, alumni schools remain engaged with Beacon through its broader network, leveraging knowledge and program development in school clusters.

Beacon considers itself an agile organisation constantly evolving what it does as it responds to and learns from the results (evaluation is an important part of Beacon’s approach) and as its relationships with schools and business partners deepen.

Beacon currently works with 117 schools across Australia.

Engaging the local community

Beacon’s work is predicated on the old adage, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.  It has always worked upfront with the local community and business to ensure their commitment in partnering with schools.

Scott Harris
Scott Harris: Beacon recognised that schools are complicated places to work in.

“When we started, we recognized that schools were complicated places to work in. Many schools don’t see the need to engage with communities to get good outcomes,” explains Beacon CEO, Scott Harris.

“We saw the best approach was first to get the local community excited and pushing for what we do.”

Beacon’s model involves initial research, local liaison, and community engagement before committing to a partnership in any community or school.

To gauge need and interest, Beacon conducts initial reconnaissance and research into that community: assessing baseline information and employment data.  Beacon then meets with key people in the community, which may include the mayor, representatives from the local council and local industry sectors, the larger employers in the region, state and/or federal MPs, Indigenous representatives (if there’s a local Indigenous community), and local media outlets as well as the school principal.

If, after this initial exploration, Beacon considers there is enough need for and interest in the program then a community forum is held. The forum may be hosted by the local council and is open to the broader school and community.

Beacon has unlocked what was in the community that hadn’t been tapped…

Again if the community interest is strong enough and there’s a shared vision for what it will achieve, a business partnership group is formed with 5-8 different representatives including the school principal and industry. This committee drives the program and the school is answerable to this group.

The school signs a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a community representative from that group encapsulating the agreement between Beacon, the community and the school. The MOU states the program’s key performance indicators.

Condobolin School Condobolin School opening itself up and, in effect, asking for help was unexpected – in a good way.

Condobolin in rural NSW, where the most recent iteration of the model is currently being piloted, demonstrated the power of involving the broader community in the early stages.

The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation (VFFF) which had been working with the Condobolin community for two years had contacted Beacon for advice about school to work transitions. Beacon got involved straightaway.

Foundation Manager, Emily Fuller, says that Beacon has been really effective in bridging the gap between the school and the community.

“Beacon has unlocked what was in the community that hadn’t been tapped,” says Fuller. “Beacon offered a practical way to help. Partnering with the community is part of its culture. Because they are genuine about what they’re trying to achieve, people responded to it.”

At the community forum, the community and school talked about their challenges and Beacon outlined its model.

“People expressed their concerns and doubts. Some had seen other programs come and go without any real impact and were frustrated,” says Fuller. “Beacon responded and others stood up and spoke passionately about needing to give this a go.”

“We’ve been to quite a few inter-agency meetings in Condobolin,” says Fuller, “but this was quite different. It unlocked something unusual. The school opening itself up and, in effect, asking for help was unexpected – in a good way.”

They were consulted, and they made a decision. It wasn’t them being told what to do.

Following the vigorous discussion, by the end of the meeting, there was overwhelming agreement to take it on.

“Beacon was pretty action oriented,” says Fuller. “There was an opportunity for anyone who was willing to put their name down for something on the spot. It all contributed to feeling that something was happening.”

For Val Ridley, Beacon’s national program manager, the community forum demonstrated the importance of getting that buy-in up front.

“If we’d set up the program first and then had the community forum, I don’t think we would have had the same level of commitment.”

“They were consulted, and they made a decision. It wasn’t them being told what to do.”

The initial community buy-in in Condobolin resulted in some rapid industry involvement at the school.

Condobolin School Initial community buy-in  resulted in some rapid industry involvement at Condobolin school

Following the community forum in December 2012, the first two events at the school were held in February and March: a business breakfast attended by 90 people from the local community and a ‘speed careering’ event in which 15 employers presented about their businesses and potential career paths.

“This cemented the relationship and showed that everyone was serious,” says Ridley.

During the year, the school has held other Beacon events: a charter signing in which year 10 students in the presence of the local community make a pledge that they’ll be in further education, employment or training in the following year; a ‘collaborative classroom’ professional development session for teachers and local business people to collaborate and co-design industry focused curriculum; and Beacon’s ‘polish’ program in which students develop skills appropriate for the 21st century workplace.

As a result, two local businessmen have led ‘business blackboard’ sessions to teach school curriculum through an aspect of their business. One of these was a local pizza business owner who demonstrated the importance of maths in making pizzas and running a pizza business. Another was Peter Felton from a local engineering firm who led a brochure design exercise as part of the English curriculum with the winning design being used by the firm.

The shift is that the community now recognises that the school is reaching out and wants to involve the community more.

Backing all this activity up, Beacon coaches school staff to offer these programs and involves them in Beacon as much as possible to ensure they have a sound knowledge of the process. In the case of Condobolin, the part time partnership manager was funded specifically for this project by the school.

According to Fuller, the shift is that the community now recognises that the school is reaching out and wants to involve the community more.

“And the community is keen to help the kids get practical experiences to bring the learning to life. They see that there’s a role for the community to play in education.”

Engaging with Beacon’s national partners

Most rural and regional schools rely on their local community and businesses to provide the program support and relationships. However in metropolitan centres, some schools also draw on support from Beacon’s national partners.

The school may be chosen as it has minimal or limited local industry, and it meets the national corporate’s objectives and values.

As with local industry, Harris emphasises that for these partnerships to work, both parties need to feel that they are getting value out of the connection.

“For business this can be addressing any number of needs: the skill shortage now or in the future, as a marketing exercise – the kids and their families may buy the company product, it may fulfill its corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments or be that the staff appreciate feeling that they are giving back,” says Harris.

Beacon helps its national partners identify the schools with the best fit.

Leighton Contractors, a Beacon sponsor for seven years, currently focuses on nine schools across Qld, NSW, Vic and WA.

When they see the opportunities with a large national organisation, it’s incredibly motivating.

Leighton Contractors Manager Community Investment, Penny Waitsman, says: “Working with schools located near our projects and offices, we aim to use our experience to raise students’ awareness of career opportunities and, where possible, connect them into traineeships and apprenticeships.”

James Meehan High School in Western Sydney is one of two NSW schools Leighton Contractors is working with, as part of its partnership with Beacon.

Community engagement wasn’t new to the school, however the relationship with Beacon and Leighton Contractors has brought some very valuable school-to-work pathways which are motivating students.

“Beacon has made a big difference; it’s been an amazing journey,” says the principal Gail Taylor. “We’ve had five students do their school-based traineeships with Leighton Contractors. It’s really inspired others.”

“Our kids come from low socio-economic status families with first and second generation unemployment; they don’t have high expectations. When they see the opportunities with a large national organisation, it’s incredibly motivating. For the first year only six applied, this year 25 were interested.”

Like Beacon, Leighton Contractors is keen to build capacity with each school. As well as delivering the student activities, it helps Beacon show teachers and school communities what corporate Australia has to offer and how to develop relationships with other companies, before moving to other schools.

“Our relationship with Beacon is quite a deep partnership,” says Waitsman. “It has grown and evolved. We work very closely to align our objectives.”

Over the seven years, Leighton Contractors has worked with 40 schools, provided apprenticeships or positions to just under 30 young people and contributed to the Beacon program design.

Young people often didn’t have the level of numeracy required for Leighton Contractors’ trainee opportunities…

In addition to providing traineeships, Leighton Contractors also participates in Beacon’s school-based programs and delivers one day careers workshops called ‘Leighton Unlocked’.

Leighton Contractors is also helping Beacon to develop a work readiness program and supporting the ‘business blackboard’ initiative to strengthen students’ maths skills.

Observing that young people often didn’t have the level of numeracy required for Leighton Contractors’ trainee opportunities, the company set out to help schools engage students in real world maths. Beacon staff, teachers in WA and Leighton Contractors’ own young graduates came together to develop the ‘business blackboard’ lesson plans which are based on examples of maths being used in business and industry. Leighton Contractors’ graduates will take part in delivering the ‘blackboard’ sessions in some Beacon schools around the country from next year.

Unsustainable without community engagement

Beacon has grown significantly since 2003 when the total number of schools that it had partnered with since 1988 was 60. As at 2013, it has worked with close to 250 schools and each year partners with some 120 schools (117 in 2013).

There are 1500 low socio-economic status (SES) schools in Australia. So far Beacon has worked in around 210 of them. But it wants to reach as many kids as possible through its program.

Business and schools need to be collaborating, so that they can co-design and own the program together.

With such rapid growth, in some areas Beacon’s focus was split between community engagement and programs with limited time to fully mesh the two, particularly where the school alone was the driver.

“Sometimes neighbouring schools have wanted to join the program and Beacon has developed the initial partnership with the school rather than the community,” explains Ridley.

Beacon has found it much harder to get buy-in once the program is underway. Without community engagement, Beacon has also found that its relationship with the school focuses more on service delivery and has less involvement of the school leadership.

Val Ridley
Val Ridley: When the community is not on board in a solid way… then the Beacon model is not sustainable.

“When the community is not on board in a solid way with a shared vision then the Beacon model is not sustainable,” says Ridley.

“We need to have the capacity to take on new schools and new communities to ensure that we are able to impact more young people.”

“Business and schools need to be collaborating, so that they can co-design and own the program together,” said Ridley. “Beacon facilitates those partnerships but so that we can move out and they will still be long lasting and sustainable.”

To ensure this happens, Beacon has refined its ‘model’ bringing its emphasis back to working first with the local community before engaging with the school. It has structured this into the model’s most recent iteration so that the community forum, establishment of the business partnership group and MOU happen before beginning the program.

An ideal progression is exemplified in the Tomaree peninsula near Port Stephens where Beacon began working in 2002. Today the program is driven by an independent non-profit, Real Futures Foundation, and is part of the schools’ and community culture. Beacon’s involvement is minimal: it visits once or twice a year and simply updates the schools on any changes in the program. As alumni, the two high schools attend cluster meetings in the area and contribute significantly by sharing their experience with other schools. 

Evaluation the backbone to buy-in

Integral to effective community engagement is Beacon’s research and evaluation.

“The main purpose of evaluation is to focus all of the stakeholders and all of the relationships on outcomes and impact rather than activity,” says Ebeny Wood, Beacon’s Research and Evaluation Manager. “It supports accountability and transparency in communicating the program’s results.”

Through the reporting process we make the school accountable to the community and vice versa.

Beacon uses data to identify the communities where a program might be most sustainable. When the program is underway, the school regularly reports back to the business partner group about how it is tracking against the program KPIs.

“Through the reporting process we make the school accountable to the community and vice versa,” says Ebeny Wood.

“We track if we’re making a difference in the number of young people going on to further education, employment and training. Are more staying engaged? If not, we need to have a conversation about that. If they are, then the conversation is about what’s working well and how to develop that further. It’s about raising awareness of what’s important and keeping the issue transparent in the reporting so that everyone can be on board with it.”

Evaluation also contributes to program development and implementation and this too engages the community more deeply.

Beacon bases each individual program for the year in any specific school on the needs and opportunities within that community and the interests and aspirations of the students. It uses its initial research on opportunities for training and employment as well as information fed through the industry representatives on the committee. Once the numbers are real, and the community can see that it’s about ‘real’ young people, there is greater engagement,

“The business partnership group is a significant source of data,” says Ridley. “We get information about business growth, cutbacks, challenges in specific industry sectors – whatever changes there may be so that between the schools, community and business, the program will create more young people with a pathway into direct employment, further education or training.”

To ensure the program matches the needs and aspirations of the students, Beacon surveys Year 9 students (at the end of the year) to find out their attitudes, their level of engagement in school, and what their goals and plans are post schooling. This contributes to program design and also enables the community to respond to what is needed.

Using measures helps people to understand that they did make a difference.

One regional school shared the Year 9 student profile with the local community. Many students were planning to leave school after year 10 which shocked the community. It also showed how many students were interested in specific industry areas and how many didn’t know what they wanted to do.

“Once the numbers are real, and the community can see that it’s about ‘real’ young people, there is greater engagement,” says Wood.

“The reporting provides the transparency for people to get involved and help develop the program. In that meeting, the onus was put onto local business to create some strategies for the students interested in their industry area. In that community, there was enormous engagement.”

Students are surveyed at the end of Year 10 to evaluate the impact of the program to enable ongoing program refinement and to provide feedback to the stakeholders.

“Using measures helps people to understand that they did make a difference,” says Wood. “They can see that difference; it’s transparent. We tell the story by telling the outcomes. Knowing what impact you had is exciting.”

Beacon has also found that sharing measures and accountability across stakeholder groups creates a much stronger collaboration. “They can all see the result of what they are contributing to,” says Wood. “The information shows that our programs are efficient and effective and that is at the core of building our relationships and commitments with schools and communities.”


Overall, working with others is central to how Beacon operates. It knows that without community engagement at a local level, the programs are neither as effective nor as sustainable; strong buy-in early on is necessary. Also at a national level, developing deep partnerships with corporate sponsors allows those organisations to engage with schools in a way that meets their needs and priorities and contributes to building schools’ capacity.

If you’d like to know more, contact


Through its venture philanthropy model, SVA has supported the Beacon Foundation since 2002. 

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