Business Links: A dream that could fade

New efforts are needed to increase the cash and support that business gives for education and training initiatives in schools and colleges, leading advisers and academics insist. Nationally, annual investment by companies is #163;450 million in cash and kind, the NationalEducation Business PartnershipNetwork estimates.

But John Woolhouse, director of the Centre for Education and Industry at Warwick University, told the TES: "The indications are that the level of expenditure on links may well have peaked."

The Confederation of British Industry last year said companies sustained spending on education and training during the recession. But many schools and colleges say they have seen a cut in support more recently as profits aretargeted at in-company training.

The biggest-ever initiative to promote partnerships is under way this week. Companies such as Whitbread, BT and British Airways, with support agencies such as Business in the Community and the training and enterprise councils, are backing thousands of schools and colleges in National Education Business Activity Week. Next week there is the first national conference for schools-business partnerships (EBPs) in Stratford-on-Avon at which their future and the reshaping of policy for the next century will be scrutinised.

The philosophy of partnership work has always remained unclear, said John Botten, the national chairman of the EBP Network. It started as an outlet for disenchanted youth with the raising of the school leaving age in 1972.

Industry Year in 1986 gave it a big stimulus and further growth followed with formation of the School Curriculum Industry Partnership which aimed to find apermanent slot for such studies on the school timetable.

But efforts to make economic and industrial understanding compulsory through the national curriculum proved a false dawn, Mr Botten said, despite government plans to focus schools on the economy and world of business.

"This work is central to the current educational debate," said Mr Botten. "Whilst levels of academic achievement have undoubtedly risen, employers still complain that youngsters are not work-ready."

A survey of work experience by the Institute of Employment Studies at Sussex University shows considerable scope for improvement; there is not enough detailed analysis of the effects of work placements, its report said.

Jim Hillage, co-author of the survey, said there was much good quality work and the money from industry had given great impetus to work experience. But as many as a quarter of placements fall below minimum standards, he said.

"Limited resources, changes in the national curriculum and the perceived lack of relevance to academic attainment may further constrain the quality of work experience programmes," he added.

The report suggests improvements. These include closer tailoring of placements to suit individual pupil needs, better computer access to employers' information databases, more clerical support for schools, more efficient health and safety checks and betterquality control.

Only four in ten pupils said they met their employers before work experience, and a quarter said their teachers never visited them at work. There was also little evidence in the IES study that work experience was used in the mainstream curriculum.

The institute calls for more rigorous fortnightly placements for all pupils as a part of the curriculum. Nor should work experience be tacked on to holidays, it says.

Where it is included in the curriculum, there is overwhelming evidence of its value in raising standards. But this is invariably where the placements are part of a wider support programme, linked to careers counselling, with teacher placements to industry and company employees supporting the work of the school or college.

One of the most successful initiatives has come from the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, which adopted many of these measures. John Hillier, the council's chief executive, said the success of the qualifications owed much to links such as those fostered by education-business partnerships.

"GNVQ students need opportunities to put theory into practice and, as the widespread take-up of the new qualifications exceeded expectations, EBPs became much-needed 'brokers' arranging new opportunities for students to work with local businesses," he said.

A survey by the NCVQ in 1994 showed that one-third of employers needed induction into the new qualifications. The employer commitment to GNVQs encouraged wider adoption of teacher placements. Marks and Spencer in Tyneside sharpened its pupil work placement schemes and offered a wider range of preparation for work programmes such as induction training days and interview simulations.

The GNVQ support work had led to significant developments, said Mr Hillier. Written assignments for students were more realistic, work placements were more relevant to a student's study, and mentoring provided extra support.

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