The frustrated industrialist....

.... 'I could employ two or three people just to deal with this one school's request - - how do I respond to the other 90?'

Boots is precisely the kind of company the Government needs to sign up if the Green Paper agenda is to be carried through. With a presence on every high street and a national HQ that is the biggest private employer in Nottingham, the company would be on the wish list of anyone looking to offer work-based vocational opportunities to young people.

So policy-makers will be disappointed to hear that Mary Brittain, Boots'

education liaison manager, has real concerns about her company's ability to co-operate with the Government's proposals.

"Some of the aspirational stuff is very powerful," she says of the Green Paper. "But are the resources in place to support it?"

As an example, she quotes from a letter sent to the company by a local school designing a brand new course in applied business. Apparently, the course requirements demand that the school work closely with two medium to large-scale businesses.

The company is asked to organise a visit to one of its stores and to its head office. The school says that the young people would need to be able to talk in detail to someone about business practice, including "how each department interacts; aims and objectives; and the use of communication within and between departments". A response was requested within eight working days.

"This is just one school," says Ms Brittain. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are more than 90 schools out there. I could employ two or three people to deal with this one school's request - how do I respond to the other 90?"

But the company is keen to help. Each year, it hosts 150 students on work experience placements at its head office, while the high street stores offer 3,500 further places nationwide. It also offers placements for teachers and its own staff contribute to school-based activities.

Last year, Boots sent 80 staff to 30 events in Nottinghamshire, involving 2,500 students. The company is now piloting precisely the kind of work experience that would be ideal for the new vocational courses: one day a week for 28 weeks.

"The principle of directly involving students in business is fine," says Ms Brittain. "But the practice makes too many demands on the employer.

"It's not just the Green Paper - the Davies report (into the teaching of finance education) is also calling for a huge investment by companies in the enterprise agenda. How can we do that and run a business at the same time?"

Ms Brittain points out that if high-profile companies such as Boots are feeling the strain, what must it be like for small to medium-sized enterprises? She says she is amazed that course specifications which demand such prescriptive contact could ever have been produced.

"Why aren't we consulted when the specs for these courses are written?" she asks.

For the Green Paper to succeed, she believes that the question of the employer's capacity to meet the demand for vocation-related placements will have to be seriously addressed. But there are other issues.

"This will need negotiation and action planning for young people on a one-to-one basis," she says. "But Connexions will be focusing on the disaffected and less able."

Ms Brittain, who also chairs the local Nottinghamshire education business alliance and sits on the National Education Business Partnership network group, says that Education Business Links organisations (EBLOs) have the potential to mediate between education and business, but that too much time during the past 18 months has been spent on re-organisation.

"The past year has been a standstill year," she says. "EBLOs have been working through contract arrangements with LSCs - complex negotiations, very bureaucratic.

"A lot of activity has been put on hold. There's been very little innovation and a tremendous amount of in-fighting and jockeying for position."

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