Today's enlightened employers, instead of only seeking to mould students into employees who will meet their own needs, now see the benefit of raising overall skill levels and, in particular, tackling underachievement among disaffected youngsters. "The focus has changed," said Trisha Bevan, manager of Hillingdon Education-Business Partnership (EBP) in west London. "Five or ten years ago employers only thought about their immediate needs. Now they want to up-skill the entire workforce."
Much of the work of EBPs is linked to General National Vocational Qualifications. Hillingdon is working with companies such as Sainsbury's and Boots to gain accreditation for GNVQ students who working for them part-time.
Martin Blincow, project manager for Hastings and Rye partnership in East Sussex, said it was important that employers found ways of supporting recognised qualifications because too many extra-curricular activities are being squeezed out of the timetable.
One reason for setting up EBP projects, added Mr Blincow, was to attract money from the Government's single regeneration budget. "East Sussex has an image as healthy area but it has real economic problems. One of the EBP's tasks is to raise skill levels through targeting students who require extra support to raise their academic attainment and motivation."
The Barnsley partnership, started in 1990, runs two projects for disaffected youngsters in South Yorkshire, many of whom have poor school attendance records. Both are designed to help them develop new skills and gain a wider range of opportunities when they leave compulsory education.
Ian Pearce, director of education at Business in the Community, which represents the UK's largest 500 companies, said education-business partnerships were essential if firms of all sizes were to develop links with schools. "Eighty per cent of the employment base in the private sector is made up of local small firms which can only be linked through agencies."
Many large firms had devolved education links to their business units or branches. Marks and Spencer, for example, allows store managers to decide when they should become involved in education projects.
The success of mentoring had shown the importance of companies donating the time of their employees along with, or sometimes instead of, money. "Employees are much more valuable to schools than money," added Mr Pearce. "An accountant acting as a mentor to a headteacher would normally be charged out at Pounds 500 an hour."
John Botten, chairman of the national EBP network, said mentoring and the use of adult volunteers in schools and colleges were likely to be important growth areas in the next few years. One headteacher had told him how teenagers gave greater credence to a mock job interview by a potential employer because, unlike teachers, the employer was seen as being from the "real world".
"Teachers are not always regarded by students as an authority on the world of work because they are not seen as being in it, which is most unfair," said Mr Botten.