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Eighteen years hard progress

The bad old days of hostility between education and business have gone, hopefully for good. The mutual antagonism hit an all-time low 11 years ago as Margaret Thatcher's government made a desperate bid to get the two sides to shake hands across the huge gulf by launching Industry Year.

Progress since then is well charted in this Business Links special report by captains of industry and leading advocates of co-operation such as Ian Pearce, education director of Business in the Community (above). There has undoubtedly been a significant breakthrough with tangible evidence that the initiatives that are backed by industry and commerce have paid dividends with improved academic performance, reduced truancy rates, an enlivened curriculum and a willingness by companies to take on pupils and students to do more than stack supermarket shelves.

If every initiative created in the name of co-operation and community support matched up to that of the Prince's Trust volunteer programme (See page 25), there would be no need for further debate about where joint public-private ventures can take us. The 80 per cent success rate - in terms of moving the unemployed to jobs or full-time study - that the initiative has achieved over two years is magnificent. And the Northumberland schools' use of the BT-backed Aim High project (See page 14) has undoubtedly reaped small but very significant dividends in the form of better academic and vocational achievement and in giving confidence to the huge minority on the fringe of tomorrow's underclass.

There is, however, no room for complacency. When John Major's government funded the Education Business Partnership initiative in 1991, it did so with an almost Maoist philosophy of "Let 100 flowers bloom; let 1,000 schools of thought contend". Core funding triggered initiatives intended to fit each locality's needs. Five years later, the same government set about seeing which blooms had withered and which blossomed (page 9). The trouble is they have all blossomed in their own ways and, too often without taking adequate note of what the others are doing.

The message is alarming. Left to their own devices, different organisations locally have done enormous amounts, most of it laudable. But the central message is that quality is suspect in at least a third of the country. The overall picture is incoherent and there is little or no thought as to how best practice can be disseminated for the good of the majority. The status of education business partnerships ranges from central driving force in the case of the best links programmes to being a dumping ground for youths on fringe activities.

Eighteen years of Conservative rule have transformed the face of education business links. Reluctant armies on both sides have come together to fight a far tougher war against ignorance, under-achievement and unemployability.

But the time to take stock has passed. Now is the time for a nationally co-ordinated programme involving all the leading groups - the EBP National Network, Business in the Community, the careers service, local authority leaders, the Association of Colleges and others - to devise a sensible framework for more cost-effective use of limited resources.

A lot of the initiatives are well-meaning but wasted. As research by the Schools Consortium shows (page 8), while companies think their education budgets are well spent on resource packs, six out of seven schools disagree. Most prefer direct support.

It would not take much to put 18 years of progress in reverse. What sort of message will schoolteachers receive if the placement scheme that put 40, 000 into industry last year collapses for want of Pounds 2m? (See page 4) Labour believes that much can be done in education by more effective and efficient use of resources. It should start with a radical rethink of how business links can be best exploited.

Ian Nash

Editor, Business Links.

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