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Never mix business with education

In recent years, the idea that employers should have significant influence in the educational arena has been repeatedly voiced, and the extent to which employers are asked to become involved has increased.

To see how unusual this is, consider whether lecturers are likely to be asked to determine business strategy. True, those who work in colleges or universities may be invited to address, say, a training issue within a company or to work with business on research. This involvement, though, is limited to consultancy. This reflects the kind of relationship that employers should have with further education. The Government, though, sees things differently. The 2003 White Paper talked of a Great Skills Debate aimed at promoting partnerships between employers and schools and colleges.

This year, the White Paper, Getting on in business, getting on at work, stressed only two goals: "to support individuals in gaining the skills and qualifications they seek" and "put employers' needs centre-stage in the design and delivery of training". These goals may, of course, conflict, especially if employers were to be given sufficient voice to influence the availability of student options.

The publication of Agenda for Change sees the introduction of quality marks designed to show employers excellent training institutions. These marks will be gained through external assessment. And, problematically, "employers would play a key part in the external assessment procedures".

There are two reasons why the argument for giving employers such influence breaks down.

First, employers seem disinclined to support the education process. This is different and more important than limited interest in training. Writing in The TES earlier in the year (February 18 ), Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, outlined the way that business and government needed to work with individuals (but expressly not educational professionals) to recoup pupil failure within the education system. Of course, the education system is not perfect, and for some pupils the real-world application of knowledge can reinvigorate their approach to knowledge and skill development. Yet, to recognise this is very different from implying that problems can be remedied by a combination of factors that excludes educational professionals. Indeed, Mr Jones is in danger of reflecting employers' demands for literacy, numeracy and suitable attitudes to work that have been made over recent and distant decades.

The second reason why extensive involvement of employers breaks down is more fundamental. Employers are not in a position to develop the education process, other than in a limited but valuable external role. In simple terms, education is a different province from business. Professions, such as teaching or engineering, which began as largely practical study, acquired an additional level of theoretical understanding. In consequence, over time, such professional training has developed and become more specialised, more analytical. And the training is different from the application of these skills in the workplace. Similar changes also apply to craft courses. Education will teach the correct way whereas the real world may value effective shortcuts. The two environments see knowledge differently. In addition, key educational themes such as the need to produce material according to the dictates of a syllabus mean the environment remains markedly different from the workplace.

Employers do not work in the educational world, any more than educators work in a business environment, and they do not know its requirements. It is for this reason that meaningful direct contributions to specifically educational agendas cannot be made by employers.

This does not mean that employers cannot be helpful in offering opinions on planned developments, and it does not deny that professional bodies have links to the curriculum of higher-level work. Skills for Productivity, recently published jointly by the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Trade and Industry, implies that employers will have a role in designing and carrying out training. It is very odd that the Government wishes employers to play such leading roles in education and training when there are already people charged with this role: educational professionals. So, in addition to misreading the role of employers, the Government is in danger of undermining the position of its educational professionals. In reality, those best placed to improve education are, well, educators.

In contrast, Sir Andrew Foster, in his review of FE, simply and more realistically asks: "How would you improve employer engagement?"

First, rather than develop such odd centralised government policies, ensure that requirements are considered locally.

Second, ensure that educational professionals and local employers consider how colleges can meet employer needs. This is likely to mean a significantly reduced role for the Government.

Third, the development of educational provision needs to remain within the hands of educational professionals.

Graham Fowler is an FE researcher, writer and consultant

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