Conference locations don't come any more appropriate than the choice of Edinburgh to host next week's EBP 2000 International Conference. Experts and practitioners in the field of education-business partnerships will find that their field in Scotland is vigorous and growing fast.
Scottish distinctiveness in education-business links predates the Scottish Assembly, created a year ago. It is rooted in the concern noted by CBI Scotland director of policy Matthew Farrow, who says that "while the Scottish workforce is better qualified than its English counterpart, it is not as productive". The belief that one answer to this is to send people into the workforce with a better understanding of what to expect has been driving developments since the early 1990s.
It was reflected in the creation a decade ago of the Strathclyde University-based Centre for Enterprise Education and the first education-business partnerships set up in 1992.
The CEE was driven by Scottish Enterprise, the EBPs by CBI Scotland. Both can point to useful track records: Education for Work and Enterprise (EWE) reckons to have trained around 3,000 primary teachers in enterprise education over the past five years, allowing them to assist youngsters in the creation of their own companies in schools. Government interest was signalled by the issue of a national framework document on education- industry links in Scotland in 1995.
But the real upturn followed the change of government in 1997 and was triggered by two speeches late in the year. Brian Tweedie, director of the EWE's national centre, recalls: "First there was the St Andrew's Day speech by the Chief Inspector of Schools, Douglas Osler, which raised the profile of the issue and created a lot of interest. Then, in November, minister for education and industry Brian Wilson launched an entire agenda. He said he wanted education and enterprise at the heart of the curriculum.
"While this raised a certain amount of debate as to where one finds the centre and heart, this was a key message. He launched a set of performance indicators for school-industry links and said that he wanted a national centre for these activities."
The national centre grew out of the CEE in May 1998. In parallel, the Scottish EBP Network, due to be relaunched as EBP Scotland at next week's conference, has seen a spectacular take-off in activities. National chair Iain MacKintosh, manager of the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey EBP, says: "There has been a huge increase in input from all sides in the partnerships. Everybody recognises the importance of easing the transition from school to the workplace.
"Our last survey showed that we are now working with 16,500 companies across the whole of Scotland, an increase of 250 per cent in the last five to six years."
Other indicators show similar or greater growth, while activities are tailored to meet the local needs. MacKintosh says: "In large parts of Scotland, the hospitality and tourism industries account for around 25 per cent of gross domestic product, so much of our work in those areas is focused on that sector."
A good example of the sort of practical training courses that his EBP promotes is the Royal Environmental Health Institute for Scotland's courses in basic hygiene. Other activities may include looking at tourism in a broader business environment or courses encouraging young people to look at self-employment - what it entails and whether they have what it takes.
Impetus has been maintained under devolution, but the new ministerial arrangements at Holyrood are seen by some as a potential obstacle."Before, you had a single minister for education and industry. Now, there are two. This has created no difficulties so far because there is a consensus on what needs doing, but it does present potential problems in terms of communication and getting the thinking joined up. Things that were once settled within a single department now have to be negotiated," says Tweedie.
The national centre has already shown a certain aptitude for joining things up: at a seminar on March 16, both Henry McLeish, Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, and Sam Galbraith, Minister for Children and Education, signed up to the Education for Work and Enterprise National Charter, committing them to support the creation of an entitlement to relevant learning through a curriculum linked with the world of work.
"Entitlement" has become the Scottish education and enterprise movement's buzzword, particularly since an HM Inspectors report on education for work in schools - released by the Scottish Executive in March - made it a key issue. The study of 28 schools found examples of good practice, but also uneven provision, which came as no surprise to anyone in the field. Tweedie is keen to see other areas emulating the Lanark and Grampian regions, where more than half of the schools are involved in enterprise education, while a CBI report earlier this year described the quality of business link activity available to pupils as "a lottery governed by education".
Tweedie says: "What we want to see is a far greater consistency of provision. Some schools are very good, others are not. We want to see schools regarding enterprise not as an extra-curricular activity, but something that is an integral part of their curriculum."
The HMI report found that most programmes were defined in terms of education-industry links, rather than as fully integrated schemes. At the same time, it echoed Tweedie's desire for a more developed relationship and called on the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum to "develop education for work in the curriculum, taking account of other key developments such as enterprise education, education for citizenship and personal growth".
The report also found that the quality of pupils' experience was often directly related to that of senior managers' and to the commitment of the authority, while pupils and staff were seen to be much more likely to regard education for work as important if it was formally assessed and certificated.
It called on schools to develop and implement policies on education for work that were backed by proper resources, quality assurance, assessment and certification. Meanwhile, the Scottish Qualifications Agency was advised to continue development work on recognising achievement in the field in the national qualification framework.
The HMI report's conclusions have been buttressed by an updated set of SCCC guidelines, which lays out a clear progression in terms of knowledge and practice in two to three-year stages from 5 to 18.
The widespread belief that education for work and enterprise is beneficial appears to have few dissenters in Scotland. Tweedie says: "In the past, there may have been teachers who were resistant and parts of business were sceptical about devoting resources, but this no longer applies."
The CBI report estimates that Scottish business puts more than pound;10 million into education for work initiatives. But the national centre and CBI are clear that more resources will be needed. Inevitably, the Government will demand that bids for more money are backed by hard evidence rather than anecdotes. To this end, it has commissioned the National Centre to study the benefits of education for work programmes and its conclusions are due to be delivered to the Scottish Executive by April 2001.