But industry seems reluctant to help ministers transform neglected vocational learning. Warwick Mansell reports
Charles Clarke has admitted that the Government faces problems convincing employers to help it improve vocational education.
The Education Secretary said employers would only become involved if they were sure that ministers were serious. Their scepticism was rooted in a cultural gap between education and industry in Britain that went back at least 85 years.
His comments, at an awards ceremony this week, came after the man leading the vocational sections of a key government inquiry into the future of secondary education suggested that many employers were not taking enough interest in it.
Brian Stevens, who heads the industry group on Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into 14-19 education, said many business people attending seminars on the inquiry did not even know the issues they were supposed to be addressing.
A key aim of the Tomlinson review, which is likely to recommend an overarching diploma to replace A-levels and GCSEs, is improving the status and quality of work-related education.
The employers' section of the inquiry is halfway through a series of 12 seminars with leading business representatives.
But Mr Stevens told an Assessment and Qualifications Alliance conference:
"We are facing extreme difficulties engaging employers in these discussions."
Mr Clarke responded: "The problem is to convince employers genuinely that we are serious about this. We obviously think we are. But others are not quite as convinced that we are serious about it. I regard that as symptomatic of the cultural gap that we have to bridge. If we take it seriously, they will engage with it."
Mr Clarke outlined the ways he was addressing the issue, including promoting greater business-classroom links, specialist business schools and Tomlinson review. He highlighted the distance between industry and further education colleges. Too many employers still did not respect FE qualifications, he said.
The comments from Mr Stevens, who heads a consultancy firm, came after the Institute of Directors dismissed Mr Tomlinson's investigation as unnecessary. The Confederation of British Industry did not even publish a response to consultation on the inquiry.