Oxford Summer School’s new course is set to be the starting point for tomorrow’s retail leaders.

The Oxford Summer School now has three levels for delegates to choose from, Foundation, Academy and Masters Forum

In today’s increasingly competitive retail environment, people in the industry now more than ever need to be trained and skilled to tackle the challenges that working in the sector throws at them. These pressures of retailing demand that working in the industry is seen as a profession, not just a job.

For 82 years the Oxford Summer School has educated the next generation of retail leaders, with a week of intensive training in all aspects of retailing that serves as the grounding for many careers at the highest level of the industry. In recent years it has been complemented by the Oxford Masters Forum, aimed at senior retail personnel.

New age

But times are changing. Increasingly the age profile of the Oxford Summer School attendee is getting older – it was 34 this year. At the same time, more talented young people are coming into the industry straight from school with lots of potential but no formal training or higher education.

That’s prompted the launch of the third leg of the school’s programme, the Oxford Summer School’s Foundation Level, which will take place for the first time at its historic home Keble College next July. Aimed at helping first-line managers about to lead a team, it will serve as a stepping stone to the main Summer School, now known as Oxford Summer School: Academy Level.

The launch of the new school coincides with the appointment of Dominic Prendergast as managing director of the Summer School, which – while the vast majority of delegates come from the multiple sector – remains under the ownership of the British Independent Retailers Association. The former Thorntons and Jessops director has big plans for the school.

“The plan is that we could potentially have up to 500 delegates attending the schools every year,” Prendergast says, adding that it can meet the training needs throughout an up-and-coming retailer’s career. “The key strand running throughout the different schools is leadership.”

Prendergast’s plan is also to put in place more of a structure that will allow the school’s success in developing industry leaders of the future to be demonstrated. An alumni programme tracking delegates’ careers as they progress is among his ideas. “I’m extremely confident we can demonstrate how attending the Summer School adds real value for employers,” he says.

Staying power

While expansion is on the cards, remaining true to the traditions of the school is at the heart of future plans. Retailers such as John Lewis – which has sent delegates every year since the school’s foundation – Marks & Spencer, Matalan and Harvey Nichols hugely value the benefits of attending, but small retailers get a lot out of it too, helped by scholarships from Skillsmart Retail and Retail Trust.

The key to its success is the immersion the delegates get in practical retail, away from the pressures of the office or store, with days devoted to themes such as marketing and finance complemented by a practical exercise at the end of the week bringing together the various disciplines covered.

All the delegates are in small groups led by group directors, often previous delegates themselves, who give up their time to lead to the groups and tend to get a lot out of the experience.

There are also inspirational speakers – this year’s included Liberty chairman Marco Capello, and Fortnum & Mason boss Beverley Aspinall telling the story of how she made it from John Lewis graduate trainee to running an iconic retail business.

The Oxford Summer School is one of the most venerable events in the retail calendar. Key to its success has always been evolving with the changes in retail while remaining close to its traditions. The Foundation Level is set to ensure that continues, and that the renowned training it gives continues to go from strength to strength.

The three stages of the Oxford Summer School

Foundation Level

July 9 to 13, 2012

  • Designed to develop first-line retail managers to lead a team
  • Will help them identify their leadership style and the impact it has on others
  • Help them improve their personal effectiveness in order to achieve business objectives
  • Engage others with presentations that inspire

Academy Level

August 18 to 24, 2012

  • Aims to expose delegates to some of the problems, decisions and challenges involved in running a retail business
  • Focused on enhancing management of resources, such as people, money, marketing, merchandise and retail space
  • Tests these skills in a business exercise that involves planning a new retail store

Masters Forum

March 5 to 8, 2012

  • Designed to take senior retail personnel beyond the day-to-day issues of running a business and help them see the broader picture
  • Encourages delegates to find their own solutions to high-level strategic issues during the week
  • Examines the challenges facing retailing today and in the future

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