TRAINING and enterprise councils have a key role to play in getting business to sign up to the Government's social inclusion agenda.
Some of them have been at it for years, as the recently-published Good Practice Guide to Social Inclusion confirms. Leading-edge TECs can claim to be ahead. They've been working in local partnerships to help bring those at the margins into mainstream work and learning.
In Birkenhead, for instance, CEWTEC - which serves east Cheshire and the Wirral - has provided homeless people with somewhere to sleep, alongside mentoring and careers planning to help them break out of the poverty cycle. In Bradford, young people from ethnic minorities have revamped derelict inner-city housing while working towards Modern Apprenticeships in construction.
Examples of TEC good practice have been sent to the Social Exclusion Unit as it prepares its report to the Prime Minister on how jobless under-18s who have dropped out of education and training can be wooed back in. Devising strategies to bring those at the margins into the mainstream has been flagged as a government priority.
Mary Lord, director of education and training at the TEC national council, says that there are two costs to not signing up to social inclusion - the loss of a new generation of young workers and the indirect costs of disaffection, crime and funding benefit payments. "There is still a long way to go, but we've got a kind of momentum now where businesses are beginning to recognise their social responsibility not just out of altruism but because there is a business case," she says.
TECs in tune with their areas have always been keen to put across the message that equal opportunities and widening recruitment makes good business sense. And the "steer" from the Government's Social Exclusion Unit is helping to bring it home.
Those in deprived areas are well versed in the economic consequences of young people falling through the education net. Nationally, 55 per cent of young people leave school without five good GCSEs. "There are 100,000 young people who are just lost to the system at 16 which is a tremendous challenge," says Mary Lord. "To have 85 per cent of 19-year-olds achieving national vocational qualification level 2 by 2002, you can't afford to have them dropping out of the system and voting with their feet."
TECs are playing a major role in the drive to spread work-based learning for young people. Their tasks include securing 100,000 National Traineeship places by March 2000, ensuring all 16 and 17-year-olds have a right to study or train while in work from September, and working with the careers service to bring back into learning 16 and 17-year-olds who have dropped out.
TECs, says Mary Lord, have been instrumental in recognising that different responses are needed to suit individual needs, and have a track record of working with other agencies such as the probation and social services. "Young people can be disaffected because of personal circumstances - such as home or health. You've got to deal with these external factors before you can get to 'Why don't you want to do any learning?'" TECs are still using a guidance document from the previous government. New Labour's review of TECs - due to be published last November is eagerly awaited by those who work in the sector. When Regional Development Agencies come on stream in April, there will be a new bodies between the national perspective of government policy and locally-based TECs, working on the ground.
Some TECs have proved beyond doubt they can deliver initiatives aimed at combating social exclusion - delivering projects worked up on the ground. Some are banding together at regional level to include social inclusion in their equal opportunities policies. Publication of the good practice guide could well lead to more TECs taking up the challenge.
A different facet of New Labour policy was voiced by Stephen Byers, now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He told business leaders that the best way to address inequality was to create a more affluent Britain and that wealth creation was more important than wealth redistribution.
Maybe the sentiment would not go down too well with disaffected young people on a sink estate. But it would be interesting to see if members of employer-led TEC boards agree with Mr Byers.
2002 LEARNING TARGETS FOR ENGLAND
* 80 per cent reaching expected standard for their age in literacy
* 75 per cent reaching the standard in numeracy
* 50 per cent getting five higher grade GCSEs
* 95 per cent getting at least one GCSE
* 85 per cent of 19-year-olds with a level 2 qualification (five GCSEs at A* C, NVQ level 2, intermediate GNVQ or the equivalent)
* 60 per cent of 21-year-olds with a level 3 qualification (2 A-levels, an NVQ level 3, an advanced GNVQ or the equivalent)
* 50 per cent of adults with a level 3 qualification (2 A-levels, an NVQ level 3, an advanced GNVQ or the equivalent)
* 28 per cent of adults with a level 4 qualification (a degree or a higher level qualification)
* A third adult target for learning participation is due to be announced in late 1998
* 45 per cent of medium-sized or large organisations recognised as Investors in People
* 10,000 small organisations to be recognised as Investors in People