School and college industry links have never been better. They have been transformed from schemes for disaffected pupils in the early 1970s to a Pounds 500 million engine to help drive the skills revolution. The bulk of support comes from business. But there are signs that business is putting the brakes on. Support has peaked and cuts are being made. Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's manoeuvres for an election-friendly Budget will not help.
Central and local government put in Pounds 30 million pump-priming cash this year. But in playing one sector off against another, he has eaten well into these pots of cash. Nor has he created the tax incentives to attract more cash from industry.
A succession of surveys analysed in The TES Business Links Special this week (centre-page pull-out) show Education Business Partnerships to be "a flawed success". They have reached a watershed. Careers counsellors, curriculum advisers, heads, teachers and students have praised the initiatives. But close scrutiny of pupil work placements by Sussex University researchers shows that schemes are being constrained by limited resources, changes in the national curriculum and a perceived lack of relevance. Employers too continue to say that young people are not "work-ready".
The problem is that a thousand flowers have bloomed in the partnership garden. But no-one has co-ordinated effort, drawn out the good practice or spread the best ideas nationally. The EBP Network was set up for this and will be put to the test at the first-ever national conference next week. A strategy to capitalise on the best efforts is badly needed.
Schools and colleges cannot afford to lose the support of industry and commerce now. A clear vision is needed - one which will lead to improved skills, better careers advice and greater clarity about the aims of work experience. Without that, both young people and the firms which stretch their resources to offer placements are wasting their time.