Making links between buseinesses and schools meaningful for both parties is Deirdre Eastburn's mission. She tells Clare Jenkins about her plans.
Deidre Eastburn is well aware of the problems facing education business partnerships (EBPs) because she sees the situation from both sides of the fence. A former economics teacher, she is now chair of the National Education Business Partner Network.
"Teachers sometimes view us as a lower form of pond life - maybe you could find a nicer way of putting that," she says with disdain. "They do that because we deal with businesses and what they consider to be non-professionals."
And how do those "non-professionals" view them? "They believe education professionals should get on with the business of education, but even small businesses want to do their bit as part of the community.
"And part of our mission is to say that the site of learning is all around you, not just in the classroom, and educationists aren't just teachers but can be all sorts of people.
"People make distinctions between training and education. They think training is just about doing a job, while education is about developing critical faculties. We try to blend the two.
"A lot of people in EBPs are from education, but to survive we have to learn what businesses expect from young people. They want educated people but also people with basic skills - not just reading and writing but team work, the ability to use initiative and to fit into an organisation. These are all things education should aspire to, yet they're not encapsulated in the national curriculum and they're not inspected by OFSTED."
Deidre Eastburn has commissioned research to assess how effective partnerships are at raising levels of achievement in young people. With pound;12,000 from the Department for Education and Employment and the help of Professor John Gray of Homerton College, Cambridge, the initial research started last month. Six partnerships are involved, 1,000 pupils are being interviewed and the results are expected around November.
This research - which may be extended - will focus on Years 10 and 11 without concentrating on under-achievers. It will look at the impact of activities common to most partnerships, such as teacher placements, industry days, mentoring and enterprise activities.
Although the value of partnerships has been recognised in the White Paper Excellence in Schools, Deidre Eastburn is well aware that the research could lead to a negative report. It's a risk she is prepared to take. "Even if we learn that people are not being motivated, it would enable us to look at other directions of approach to schools."
Deidre Eastburn first became involved with partnerships in 1987 in Sheffield - she is now the city's partnership manager. She had taught at schools in the city before moving into careers and guidance, and then the technical and vocational education initiative.
The national partnership network was set up three years ago. A support organisation, it has official backing and support from Business in the Community and some of the UK's leading companies. When Deidre Eastburn took over as head, she felt that the network had a high profile, with 150 members and a base of some 4,000 companies, but that their performance needed attention. The inconsistency in the quality of services was noted by the DFEE in the quality and performance improvement division evaluation in 1996. So another strand of her mission is to start a quality assurance system; it will be piloted this autumn and involve externally validated peer group accreditation.
"In terms of level of performance, there are very few really brilliant partnerships and very few really poor ones," she says. One problem is that they have different emphases depending on whether they are linked with a local education authority, a careers company, a training and enterprise council or an independent company.
"The Sheffield EBP has a strong education emphasis, because it's sited within the education department," says Deidre Eastburn. "Suffolk has very high quality curriculum work. Other partnerships involved with TECs are very concerned with training and a lot less concerned with curriculum projects.
"Variety," she adds, "is a necessary evil. We work best when we're allowed to balance out different demands from different partners. We need a good basis on which governance can take place, with all partners having an equal say. And we'd like to see some security for funding, instead of 12 months of this, 18 months of that."