Catering to training needs
The Butlers Wharf Chef School is designed to help plug a gap in the market, according to its founders, easing a serious skills shortage by responding directly to the precise needs of the industry.
Further education colleges would reject any implication that their own links with employers are inadequate, and point out their role is to prepare students to enter many other areas of catering besides the plush restaurants of London's West End.
But Conran's move is being seen by some in education as evidence that all is not as it should be with the catering qualifications now available to students.
For Professor Alan Smithers, director of Manchester University's Centre for Employment and Education Studies, the opening of the school exposes questions over the appropriateness of national vocational qualifications in meeting employers' requirements.
"You need NVQs to be embedded in the fabric of employment. Qualifications like these are being invented for people like Terence Conran and if he does not think the people coming from the colleges are any good then that is a very important point."
Three catering NVQs are among the "100 top NVQs" being scrutinised by the Beaumont Committee to identify their strengths and weaknesses. According to committee member Professor Smithers the courses will only be useful in so far as they are respected by employers and help students get jobs as a result.
The problem, he suggests, stems partly from flaws in the consultation with the industry when the NVQs were drawn up. "Employers were supposed to specify the standards but because they are busy people they tended to hand that over to consultants, and consultants tended to make a business of complicating it."
An over-analytical, fragmented structure compounded the difficulties with the new qualifications, he adds, combined with a loss of focus on employers' needs in the rush to shift jobless young people off the employment register and on to training courses.
As a partner in the Butlers Wharf school, the Hotel and Catering Training Company - the industry lead body - is somewhat awkwardly placed to comment on the implications of the project, but chief executive David Harbourne denies the scheme reflects poorly on training elsewhere. "It is not a question of the colleges not providing what the industry wants - although it may be that they are not providing what Conran restaurants want. The HCTC says that with the forecast expansion in the industry, there is just not enough training provision, full stop."
NVQs have had their teething problems, he admits, and work is still needed to make the assessment process simpler and less time consuming. But full reviews of the qualifications at levels one and two and much of level three have brought great improvements. "There is now quite a close match between the training and the employers' needs, though clearly it would be daft to pretend we were there when we first started."
In the colleges, opinion on the qualifications among catering school heads remains sharply divided.
Martyn Wagner, who presides over five restaurants, 19 kitchens and more than 1,800 students at Westminster College, London, believes NVQs have brought industry and colleges closer, formalising links that have existed for some time. The modern apprenticeship programme now being introduced will produce further bonds.
Though his central London college sends many of its students to jobs in those West End restaurants soon to be the goal of Butlers Wharf trainees, Mr Wagner believes there is room for a variety of training. Like the new school, Westminster uses NVQs as a base for its own programmes, adding other elements to increase students' experience.
At Bradford College, hospitality head Barry Holt is satisfied with the newly-revised, "more manageable" NVQs. Instead of blaming colleges or qualifications, he suggests, employers should examine their own practices - including long hours and low pay - to discover the reason for skills shortages.
Other heads of schools remain far less content. At one south of England college with an award-winning catering school, the department head fiercely condemns the NVQs system, claiming students can earn the qualifications without being properly trained.
He said: "Students are only having to show they have a particular skill once, when previously they would have had to repeat it time after time. They are being sent out to work with a piece of paper which is a lie."
Employers, he believes, have no time for a qualification they still barely understand. "They hate it they don't feel the standard is anything near what is required.
"If we have to keep teaching NVQs, the big hotels and restaurants will follow Conran and do their own training in order to get the staff they want."