Neil Merrick reports.
EMPLOYERS are failing to support moves to tackle skill shortages and increase opportunities for learning in local communities, an education minister complained this week.
Kim Howells, the minister for lifelong learning, said centres hoping to become "learning cities" had been disappointed by the poor response so far from businesses.
His comments were a stark contrast to those of Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, who praised industry support for 25 education action zones launched this week. But critics, including Conservative education spokesman David Willetts, accused him of hype.
Mr Howells told a European conference on lifelong learning in Southampton:
"A learning city needs the support that business can offer the community and vice versa. A city is only as good as its business and its people."
Speaking later to The TES, Dr Howells said civic leaders had pointed out the lack of enthusiasm being shown by many employers to Mr Blunkett at the first learning city network national conference in Milton Keynes last month.
Dr Howells stressed that this was not the case everywhere and that some companies were keen to take part. But he added: "They are not coming forward in sufficient numbers or sending along people of a high enough quality for discussions and deliberations."
The minister praised companies such as Tesco, which recently announced it would open learning centres in 400 stores, but said more small and medium-sized firms must increase levels of investment in education and training. "Future success in this country won't be built upon fixed capital but on intellectual capital," he told the conference.
Southampton is one of 20 British cities to join the learning city network. It is also a member of a steering group to promote learning cities in Europe, along with Gothenburg and Espoo, in Finland.
Bob Hogg, Southampton's executive director for education, admitted the initial response from the business sector had been slow, but he was increasingly pleased by the way it was identifying a common agenda with education and training providers.
Five major local employers - British Telecom, Ford, Southampton Airport, Swaythling Housing Society and Vosper Thorneycroft - are expected to sign up to a learning alliance with schools,colleges, Southampton University, voluntary organisations and Hampshire Training and Enterprise Council.
Efforts to turn Southampton into a learning city coincided with the city council becoming an education authority in April last year. Targets have been set, with 15 per cent of the population expected to have basic-level IT qualifications by 2001.
Companies have opened their IT facilities to adult learners while vacant council property on two housing estates has been turned into learning shops, with libraries, computer suites and careers centres. "We are taking learning to the community rather than waiting for the community to come to learning," Mr Hogg said.
The city council is holding talks with Hampshire TEC about the creation of a new kitemark to complement the Investors in People standard. He said employers would be encouraged to become an "Investor in Learning" by showing staff can take part in learning both within and outside the workplace and that the company is willing to learn from other employers.
Any town, city or community in Britain can become a "learning city" by demonstrating private and public organisations are promoting learning to achieve social cohesion, regeneration and economic development.
The Department for Education and Employment has produced a toolkit with the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education to show ways of achieving learning city status, including examples of schemes already in place across the UK.