Exchanges between business and school have something of a motherhood and apple pie quality about them at the moment. It is hard to find anyone who has anything bad to say about them.
For Business in the Community (BITC), the Prince of Wales's club of top business leaders, there is a glaringly obvious reason for them. Ian Pearce,BITC director of education, says: "A hundred thousand youngsters are leaving school at 16 without a qualification. That is 15 per cent of the workforce. It is a national tragedy, and we want every one of our 500 member companies to do something."
An Ernst and Young survey has revealed that companies spend more than Pounds 10 million a year improving the skills of their workers. BITC companies are also heavily involved in the Government's New Deal programme and are working in schools alongside training and enterprise councils (TECs) and groups such as education business partnerships (EBPs).
Deirdre Eastburn, chairman of the EBP network, representing 136 local groups, enthuses about the benefits for all parties. "There is no such thing as a deficit model," she says. "Business people get as much out of partnerships as schools do."
The Government agrees. Its consultation document, Schools and business: sustaining partnerships, points to "a mutuality of benefits for a wide range of individuals". For school pupils, exchanges "not only broaden young people's understanding of the world of work, and the key skills required, but can increase motivation and achievements". Employers benefit through "better recruits . . . the opportunity to influence the curriculum and . . . enhanced standing in the community". For schools, there are "new opportunities for learning", while teachers "learn new skills and gain confidence in their ability as managers and professionals".
The document was born in unfortunate circumstances. Last year, the Teacher Placement Scheme, which provides short-term business secondments for 40, 000 teachers each year, was put in jeopardy when its core funding came to an end.
Industry, led by the Engineering Employers Federation, campaigned against the cut, and was rewarded in April when the Government agreed to extend funding for the current academic year while it carried out a review of the entire field of education-business links.
The outcome of the review is short - only eight pages, including the cover - and unpretentious: typeset, photocopied and devoid of illustrations. It focuses firmly on business-school exchanges, particularly strategy, structure and evaluation.
On strategy it points out that in many schools exchanges are not integrated fully into other activities, while many businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are still unaware of the potential benefits of partnerships. Both sides need to establish why they are working together and what they hope to get out of the relationship.
The document proposes four broad objectives:
* improving pupils' motivation, achievements and understanding of work so raising standards, tackling disaffection and preventing social exclusion; * developing employability and good citizenship; * ensuring pupils are prepared for work; * delivering identifiable, preferably measurable, benefits to pupils, teachers, businesses and the wider community.
On structure it calls for a framework and check-list which would clarify the current patchwork of organisations - such as EBPs and training and enterprise councils (TECs) - involved in partnerships, and provide information and guidance on suitable partnerships.
On evaluation the Government is proposing a review of research into the effectiveness of current schemes, and continuing to work with the EBP network to devise criteria for measuring performance.
The consultation period closes on Monday. Deirdre Eastburn expects a heavy response and is happy with the document, though cautious of commenting on behalf of the EDP network. Moss Foley, director of education for the Post Office, is also happy. "This is as good a point as any to start the debate, " he says.
Critics are more reluctant to go on the record. But their complaints focus not so much on what the document says as what it leaves out. It concentrates, they say, on school-business exchanges, with little acknowledgement of the lifelong learning agenda and no references to developments such as education action zones.
Brian Stevens, head of the Finance and Education Service, which was set up to promote educational links with the finance industry, says: "It deals with some important issues, but is too modest and limited in its scope. There is more to links than preparation for work."
He feels that the document has too little to say about the curriculum: "A real rethink is needed to integrate awareness of work into the curriculum, rather than having it dotted around in areas like business studies and information technology. And it has to be enforced as well, by including it in the requirements of an Ofsted inspection."
Deirdre Eastburn's welcome was tempered by disappointment that there is no commitment to funding; EBPs are dependent on an ad hoc patchwork of contributors, of which TECs are easily the biggest. She would like to see understanding and experience of business at all levels of the curriculum, and for all pupils, irrespective of academic achievement.
She points to the preliminary findings of research commissioned by the EBPs from John Gray at Homerton College, Cambridge: "While we would like to point to a relationship with academic performance, by far the most interesting find is that exchanges are particularly beneficial for boys in terms of vocational orientation and belief in their ability to do things. With all the worries about boys' performance that has to be very good news."
Deirdre Eastburn feels that the document could have made more of the benefits to business. "Experience of schools can be terrific for managers, because they are much more complex institutions in human terms than most companies," she says.
Moss Foley would like to see the diploma in industry-education partnerships, piloted over the last year in Devon and Cornwall in partnership with the Prosper TEC, extended to other parts of the country. "We had 12 schools last year, 24 this year and there has been a terrific response," he says. "You have to start with the schools and ensure that these issues are integrated into the curriculum."
He notes that small and medium businesses are responsive to requests to get involved: "In a rural area almost all business is small or medium. For them the key is the importance of schools to the community as a whole; the same applies in cities, but it is rather easier to convince people in small communities. "