Canary Wharf, probably more than any other global financial centre, is a geographical and sociological enigma.
It is estimated that there are more financial services workers employed in the Docklands area than in the whole of Frankfurt. And yet all around these glittering towers of Mammon lies one of London’s most impoverished boroughs – Tower Hamlets.
Clifford Chance is one denizen of Canary Wharf that has been working to bridge the divide in recent times. Last year, as part of its corporate responsibility agenda, the firm invited students from local schools to spend a day onsite to take part in a mock G20 discussion group.
After a successful first year the scheme was repeated earlier this month, when 56 students from three Tower Hamlets schools came to the Upper Bank Street offices to participate in a mini version of the European Parliament.
“It’s the total contradiction of Canary Wharf,” says Clifford Chance competition partner Oliver Bretz, who helped run the sessions. “Most of these kids have never been inside Canary Wharf.”
Clifford Chance has a strong recent history of working on educational projects in the borough. For example, senior partner Stuart Popham is a trustee of the Tower Hamlets Business Education Partnership – one of a number of moves by the firm to build closer ties with the community.
“All firms are running corporate responsibility schemes now,” continues Bretz. “But the question is, how real are they? This was one of the busiest days I’ve had this year, so in a way the last thing I needed was 60 schoolchildren turning up, but you have to be absolutely committed to it or there’s no point.”
The students, aged between 16 and 18, were split into groups to debate various topics, such as immigration and GM foods. Each student was given a member state to represent and then had to present its position on the relevant issue to the group. In a later session each group presented back to the rest of the students.
As well as Bretz the sessions were run by trainee Sean Schneider, who spent six months working at the European Commission and a further 18 at the European Parliament, FSA EU affairs adviser Petros Fassoulas and Andrew van der Lam, head of EU strategy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. For Bretz one of the important features of the day was that it challenged many of the students’ preconceptions.
“It was interesting in terms of raising aspirations,” he explains. “It was about getting them into a situation where they were treated like adults. Quite a few asked how they could get into the civil service or become a lawyer.”
The discussion of career prospects led to several requests for work experience at the firm. Bretz believes that part of a genuine approach to corporate responsibility is engaging with people at an early stage and for long periods of time. For him this should include work experience placements.
“We’re thinking about how we can accommodate them,” Bretz says. “In many ways firms should be starting [work experience placements] earlier. Once they’re at university they’re more likely to get a job anyway. The ’making a difference’ stage is much earlier.”
The students themselves also acknowledged that the change of environment challenged the way they approached the subjects they were tackling at school.
“It’s a really good way to learn,” says Daisy, a student from Thomas Tallis school. “Getting the chance to debate issues and present them back means we have to really understand what we’re saying.”
And some discussions, particularly around whether Turkey should be allowed to enter the EU, provoked passionate reactions.
“They all agreed that human rights are important,” says Bretz. “But they were less convinced that freedom of the press is quite