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Small spin needed to start a revolution after six months

If Tony Blair asked me for a six-month judgment on his new Labour Government I would be tempted to ask for "less spin and more principle". I might even go on to add: "less fear of immediate unpopularity amongst powerful interest groups and more long-term progressive change."

What is interesting about this judgment is that it's partially unfair. Few of us in education can avoid spin and act only on long-term reform. Indeed, those who achieve substantial advances in education often need to spin early successes to survive and make things happen.

Most principals of colleges and chief education officers find themselves caught in a web of immediate issues and problems. Demands for opportunities and resources join the queue for attention alongside the external demands of new policies, programmes and funding and staffing regimes. The outcome is a wide range of short-term strategies. Communication focuses on what matters today. Long-term goals and strategies come a poor second, to the extent that those outside education have little understanding of future demands, complexities and directions.

I recently accompanied business leaders on a visit to an outstanding inner-city college. The group comprised directors from finance, petrochemicals, banking and utility companies. All prided themselves on their proven ability to analyse future economic needs, take long-term strategic decisions and focus business activity on competitive productivity and sustainable return on investment. This is how they approached the management of education in a highly deprived inner-city community facing the issues of residual unemployment, disassembly of the welfare state and poverty, plus needy groups such as lone parents, refugees and unskilled youth.

What they saw was a multiplicity of academic and vocational courses, flexible learning facilities, childcare, personal guidance and welfare advice and even free meals for those at greatest risk. As a teacher, I thought it was brilliant. But the business leaders thought that much of it was unfocused and the emphasis on welfare was taking management attention away from teaching quality and outcomes as measured by qualification standards.

Complex stories need skilled communication - spin has its value. The further education sector has moved mountains over the past decade - doubling student numbers, developing a host of new courses and qualifications and filling in where welfare support has been cut. Colleges have had to revolutionise employment contracting and have developed flexible customer-orientated forms of teaching and individualised learning. At the same time, unit costs and much of adult education have been cut. It is, therefore, disappointing to see these achievements go unrecognised - especially by top-level business leaders.

It was all too much to take in on one visit. People in business are just as caring as teachers and all were deeply impressed by the commitment and level of professional service shown in the college. Yet they felt that FE was being dragged in to replace the state on welfare and drawn away from the need to develop globally competitive skills (in fact the college concerned has received an excellent inspection report on both standards of achievement and flexible provision to meet needs in its community). We must not conclude that colleges should shy away from welfare and personal support for those groups most in need (such a strategy would further undermine the skills base). Rather, colleges should communicate their scale of modernisation, their current range of provision and the success of the FE sector on standards. As post-16 education competes with schools and universities, a positive spin on the added value of FE to the UK skills base is essential.

What is equally a communication and perception puzzle is the way teachers and lecturers (and politicians) tend to view business. Most companies are seen as rich and highly profitable with a certain future. As such, it is expected that a "heart-strings approach", emphasising compassion, will elicit sizeable cheques to top up school and college budgets where the state fails.

In fact, nothing is further from the truth. Most companies are facing accelerating advances in multiple technologies combined with increasing global competition. Future profitability and survival depend upon the application of ever higher skills. The business cognoscenti will invest in education in depth, but only to meet this skills agenda. They wish to support proven programmes set up on a sustainable partnership basis which demonstrably tackle under-achievement and build relevant skills for employability and citizenship.

Money is now the least favoured way for business to support education. "People time" - as managers, student mentors or associate teachers - is seen as more effective, combined with gifts in kind such as recycled computers or access to training.

Companies want to be involved in the management and development of activities and will demand evaluation of impact on learning to prove added value. The better companies are moving towards large-scale consortium partnerships across communities to provide additionality (never to replace what the state should provide). Colleges and schools should look towards these long-term partnership approaches with a wide range of companies and business resources. Business needs its own spin on how it will work with education.

Overall, we need more and better communication across education and business, which should tell the whole truth rather than hide unpopular or difficult problems. The failure of education and business fully to inform each other and win mutual respect could undermine the long-term partnership and progressive change needed to expand opportunity and build competitive skills. We need quality messages (or spin) today to make universal opportunity for lifelong learning possible tomorrow.

Ian Pearce is director of education for Business in the Community

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