Newspapers in the summer were filled with portents of doom and gloom over the future of school and college-industry links. And the autumn term started with a highly critical report from the Confederation of British Industry.
But there is good news. My own local authority has an Education Business Partnership (EBP) which brings together senior people from business, education and local government. This group's output supports wide-ranging experiences which are cost-effective, offering much-praised programmes for students. But more importantly, this diverse local support is helping the EBP towards its goal of becoming self-financing.
How is this achieved? In a nutshell, West Berkshire's EBP is sponsored: by schools, Thames Valley Enterprise (the local training and enterprise council) and an increasing number of businesses, usually on a pro-rata basis. It works because all those involved have calculated that in terms of resources (expertise, finance, administration and management time) they are getting a very good deal.
In terms of work placements alone, more than 2,500 students from schools and the local further education college have had work experience weeks arranged and administered by the EBP since it started in 1993. Other services include seminars, teacher placements, special problem-solving days, management skills training for sixth-formers and visits to businesses by educationists - and vice versa.
The EBP is increasingly being recognised by local companies as the "one-stop shop" to contact regarding queries on education.
The EBP staff (three full-time, one part-time), are recognised by all parties as the "organisers and fixers". They liaise with the schools and businesses, and place students according to their stated preferences - and at a cost to schools and businesses much lower than it would be if individual schools and business managers were doing the administration.
As an example, I know from my diary that 12 students will arrive on agreed dates during the next year. When I first see them, I will know that they want to be in my organisation and will be fully aware of what is expected of them, regarding code of conduct and dress. In our first meeting (from the students' perspective, their first interview) I will try to ensure that the particular experiences I am able to offer matches their expectations andor priorities.
Another measure of success in West Berkshire is that more than 50 local businesses attended the EBP's first AGM recently, where they were given a certificate showing that they were EBP sponsors. I and many of my colleagues display these in our reception areas so that staff and visitors - some of whom will undoubtedly be parents with children seeking work experience - can recognise the corporate support for this initiative.
There is another benefit to consider from the partnership approach. Many employers are increasingly bemused by the plethora of qualifications, courses and language used by prospective employees and educationists. To this end, an A5-size handbook was produced which explains current education and training initiatives.
I have found this invaluable, as it brings together - in one accessible source - information on everything from the national curriculum to current examinations, with an explanation of grading systems and equivalents.
I now understand what PSE, NRA, NETTS, RoA, INSET (to name but a few) stand for, and as an employer can take part in meaningful discussions on these topics.
I would recommend any prospective Education Business Partnership to follow West Berkshire's initiative here - the booklet alone was worth the sponsorship donation.
Stephen Smyth is policy assistant for Newbury District Council.