Now that teaching unions are having a go at New Labour's policies, which were idealised less than a year ago, it's timely to give a business view.
First, a health warning is required. Working with Business in the Community's 500 blue-chip companies I have become more aware of their diversity. Each industrial sector or company board has its own educational priorities and views on Government policy and performance. What follows is the consensus view of those companies most active in supporting schools and colleges. It is inevitably partial because the Government has its policies and legislation for schools on track but is extending the consultation phase for strategy on further and adult education.
Many companies will find the unions' attack on education action zones incomprehensible. Business views the vast tail of under-achievement as the number one education problem facing this nation. It undermines employability, social cohesion and future prosperity. International companies are fully aware of the wider and higher skills-bases in other nations and fear for future investment in the UK if this under-educated and virtually unemployable one-third remain excluded.
Companies are prioritising resources on this issue and putting pressure on the Government to increase its scale of action and shift resources to those most at need. Hence to business the need for action zones is self-evident and the only point of criticism is the urgency for many more to meet the scale of need. No business wants to run a zone, all want to work in partnership with teachers, Government and other stakeholders. Here the possibility of innovation and joint action across clusters of schools is seen as advantageous, more especially as this involves more flexible contracting rewarding high performance and radical advances in education opportunities for communities with generations of under-achievement.
The Government scores high where it has the vision to take on structural problems and low where its actions are limited. Its main strengths lie in the vision to start young and invest in nursery and primary education with a focus on reaching high standards in literacy and numeracy. But where's the action on widening access to further and higher education and the search for a national qualification framework?
Indeed, the Government's first year can be scored low for further and adult education - the vital access point for the lost generations of the under-educated. In addition, teacher pay, continuing criticism of the education system, low resourcing of policies and the recruitment crisis all add up to problems ahead.
Yet on opportunities few governments have enjoyed such broad business support on vision, key policies and the priority given to education. The pragmatic approach, evidenced by continuing commonsense policies inherited from the Conservatives (for example, working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on key skills, stronger vocational qualifications and access to further education) is widely endorsed. As is the new willingness to work through large-scale publicprivate- sector partnerships. Ministers with strong action agendas and weak ideologies go down well at business tables.
But threats are mounting. Business is concerned about the status and morale of the teaching profession, the quality of new entrants and the recruitment crisis for headteachers set against the need to stop the over-emphasis on criticising the weak, to develop modern employment contracts which reward performance and to explore ways government and business could promote teaching as a career.
Business also fears that the scale of all the changes proposed may undermine implementation unless the Government invests in the teaching profession, specifically in the training and development costs of managing change, adopting new teaching strategies and improving school performance to meet the targets.
Those who criticise from the unions' side and fear business involvement in education should note the benefits. For example, business has led on the need for added-value performance measures. It wants the Government to ensure that new national and local targets are inclusive of all levels of improvement so that added-value can be measured and credit given to schools and colleges (and teachers) serving the disadvantaged.
Business is supporting the literacy and numeracy strategies (Marks amp; Spencer, KPMG and National Power sponsored the task forces) but has deep concern about the possible downgrading of science, technology and other vital areas of the primary school national curriculum. Business is also supporting the new professional qualification for headteachers but is concerned that few, especially in primary education, have been trained or have access to management support (with the backing of the Government and Teacher Training Agency, Business in the Community will be providing some 5,000 business mentors to advise headteachers on management for school improvement).
Finally, business wants the Government, QCA, and FEFC to get their acts together on access to further and higher education and a more unified qualifications system which accredits the achievement of all and puts paid to the Kennedy Report's finding that "if at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed".' Overall, I find that many business leaders applaud the Government's vision and pace but are concerned about making things happen, especially at sufficient scale in the areas of under-achievement. So far action on schools and the personal standing of Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett and his ministerial team have won support. Winning sufficient Treasury resources now to impact by 2002, investing in the teaching profession provided teachers accept performance pay and flexible contracts, focusing resources on the disadvantaged to tackle exclusion and supporting senior staff in the management of change and organisational improvement will be the acid tests for future support.
Ian Pearce is director of education, Business in the Community.