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Industry links need forging

Principals want to improve communication with business. Steve Hook reports

There is widespread concern about the relationship between colleges and industry, according to an FE Focus survey of principals.

Since the Learning and Skills Council was founded in 2001 with Bryan Sanderson as its first chairman, its national council and 47 local arms have all included business people in their membership.

The new chair, soft drinks tycoon Chris Banks, also came from the private sector to lead the LSC's young people's learning committee.

But despite industry's apparent influence over FE funding, 56 per cent of the surveyed college principals say communication between the sectors remains poor.

From the perspective of principals, further education has a long way to go in pursuit of the LSC's founding vision - a system of post-16 education which listens more closely and reacts with more agility to the demands of business.

This, the LSC believes, is essential if colleges are to play their part in providing relevant training to supply industry with productive recruits.

The LSC took over from the Further Education Funding Council and the Training and Enterprise Councils. The TECs, it argued, were not doing the business in skills-training.

But the new quango has yet to convince the majority of principals that this more centralised approach to engaging employers is working at grassroots level, despite the efforts of the LSC's 47 local offices.

Some of the principals who responded to the survey say the relationship with industry has actually got worse under the LSC.

John Tredwell, principal of Worcester sixth-form college, said: "This has got worse over the 20 years I have been a principal.

"The bodies encouraging education-industry links have either disappeared or don't seem to operate at the right level."

Protocol Training is researching the extent to which college-based training meets employers' expectations. The results will be unveiled at a London conference attended by Ivan Lewis, the skills minister, on November 24.

Another college principal commented that while communication with business is good "in theory", companies are impatient with long-term strategic visions when they want more immediate action.

Another survey respondent said that better communication with businesses was "potentially the biggest priority for the LSC to address and to facilitate locally and regionally".

Mr Sanderson, before his departure, stressed that business representation on the LSC needed to be more about quality and less about the quantity of industry representatives. Principals, our survey suggests, would not disagree with his analysis.

The survey also revealed that 84 per cent of principals are concerned about the effect of competition for specialist schools at a time when colleges are expected to get more involved at 14-plus and have been planning for expansion in this area.

The emergence of new school sixth-forms may also threaten colleges, according to 68 per cent of principals.

Mr Tredwell said: "It is a policy without theoretical or practical foundation, except in some specific areas."

The LSC refused to comment.

Research by Patrick Hayes

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