Ministers are considering sweeping changes to the way education business partnerships are organised and paid for throughout the UK. Reforms are expected in line with a radical overhaul of the funding of training and enterprise councils, colleges, the careers service and the allocation of European cash.
Senior officials within the Department for Education and Employment are understood to be concerned at the failure of at least one in three to guarantee suitable quality assurance systems and their lack of coherence across the country.
The blame lies partly with the inadequate resources given to support the partnerships, despite the introduction of core funding for them through the training and enterprise councils in 1991. Cash given in different regions is often not clearly defined or tracked.
In 1990, the then Department of Employment launched a national EBP initiative to bring coherence to schemes which had proliferated locally since the early 1980s and the now infamous Industry Year when relations between schools and the world of work were seen as being at an all-time low.
But no real attempt was made to evaluate the national drive and investment programme until the merger of Employment with Education into the DFEE in 1995. A study of 28 partnerships in 16 training councils was then carried out and its findings published earlier this year.
A report from civil servants to go to ministers, based on that research, is understood to express alarm and to call for a fundamental rethink not only of the way funds are spent but on how the best practices are disseminated. The research report painted a picture of failure to capitalise on considerable goodwill from all sides of education and industry, and a lack of initiative to draw in some of the most vital agents such as small to medium enterprises into the programmes.
In 19 out of 28 partnerships, quality assurance systems were said to be working effectively. "They were much less evident in the other areas, especially where the EBP was relatively thinly resourced," says the report. Too often, quality was sacrificed in the push to get a large quantity of links initiatives up and running in schools and colleges.
There was considerable lack of coherence across the country. "In a few areas, the focus of link activity was almost exclusively on secondary schools, but this was seen as undesirable by the key players in the areas concerned, " says the report, A Stocktake of Education Business Link Mechanisms, for the DFEE. "In most areas, the key players were unclear about how education business link activity and careers education and guidance support each other."
In only half the areas studied were the partnerships at the centre of activity on the National Targets for Education and Training and oneconomic and social regeneration - things seen as vital to Britain's sustained ecomonic recovery and international competitiveness. "In the other areas, they restricted themselves to a narrower activity-driven brief."
While such limitations were not necessarily grounds for criticism, the narrower perspective tended to come in areas where overall co-ordination was poor. "Schools and employers still expressed concerns about the number of different national organisations which had contacted them directly."
A series of recommendations were made to the DFEE in February from researchers carrying out the work for the department's Quality and Performance Improvement Division. A rethink by all interested parties was needed to use business-education links more effectively in raising attainment in primary and secondary schools.
Work experience and other business activities had to be seen as "an entitlement" for all pupils and not just focused on the disaffected and lower ability range.
Measures are urgently needed to draw in the small companies and link EBP work more closely to careers education and guidance, the DFEE will tell ministers. In several areas, partnerships had little or no direct links with the careers service.
Among the 12 main recommendations in the report are the need to use resources more cost-effectively, to spell out to all partnerships more clearly what their priorities should be. National organisations should be encouraged to link in with EBPs more closely at local level, it says.