Education-business bodies are scrambling for survival before April's big shake-up. Phil Revell reports
The Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" could be on the minds of business links organisations in the midst of transition before the introduction of learning skills councils next April. The LSCs will replace training and enterprise councils, as well as the Further Education Funding Council - and the post-16 education and training community faces a revolution as funding routes and inspection arrangements change.
But lost in all the excitement about sixth form budgets and Ofsted inspection of colleges is the role the new councils will have in promoting and developing partnerships between education and business.
The education-business landscape is a crowded one with a plethora of organisations - some national, some local - seeking to persuade employers and schools of the unique qualities of their particular baby. From work experience to enterprise education, there's no shortage of providers but, as the Government's consultation paper noted: "Businesses I were often confused, as were schools, by the myriad of local programmes, projects and delivery organisations."
The consultation paper suggests that one lead body should co-ordinate education business partnerships in each LSC area, a move considered sensible by nearly all commentators. But there is frantic jockeying for position going on as organisations strive to protect their projects and, by implication, their existence.
Plans for the lead body have to be submitted to Government regional offices by July, with approval leading to pump priming funding of around pound;100,000 per LSC area. In some areas, effective lead bodies already exist. But in the cities and in London in particular, LSC and TEC boundaries are not the same. There will be 47 LSCs as opposed to over 70 TECs, which will create some immediate problems to be resolved.
So, what will the lead bodies look like? They will have responsibility for the distribution of funds, so will almost certainly need to be legal entities, probably limited companies. They could be genuine consortia - partnerships where each of the key players in an area gets a seat at the table - or one local body could step forward to take control.
Existing education business partnerships (EBPs) may be the odds-on favourites to take the role in many areas, but there are 200 EBPs and they can't all metamorphose into the lead body. Careers companies could see themselves as having the capability and infrastructure to manage business links, but most will have their hands full with the introduction of the new ConneXions strategy for young people.
The likelihood is that track record on the ground will be the litmus test in the process, with lead body status going to the organisation with the bodies in place. The problem with that approach is the low quality of some of what passes for education business activity in some TECs. A few of the national players are itching to get into the new LSCs to inject some oomph into local schemes.
Whatever their make-up, the lead bodies will allow the LSCs to operate at arm's length while setting a strategic agenda. Each area will be expected to deliver core activities to include the pre-16 work experience programme and teacher placement. The latter could change radically, with wide agreement that the current arrangements are unsatisfactory and a DFEE working party due to produce recommendations for the new LSCs to work to.
Government funding will become dependent on what effect an LSC is having on a wide range of educational agendas, including pupil motivation and attendance, through to management and leadership in schools.
And it's in the schools where we find the biggest conundrum of the entire exercise. The various link organisations are clued up about this process - most responded to the consultation and negotiations about the lead body are already under way in many areas. But schools seem to have been missed out on the information loop. Those headteachers approached by the TES were aware of the plans for radical change at FE level, but less certain about the impact on schools.
Guidelines about how local partners can come together to form a lead body were published in May. June is likely to be spent working out a detailed plan for the local government office. If schools want to be involved in the decision making - about things which will directly affect their pupils - they need to beat a path over to their EBP and demand to be told what's going on.
February: Consultation on education business links published
July: Education business link lead body bids for funding to develop initial development plans
July-September: Bids assessed by regional governmentoffices. Funding made available to successful lead body in each LSC area
September: Education business link website set up to provide guidance on structure and development plan objectives
December: Education business link consortia finalise initial development plans
January: TEC arrangements in place for transfer of pre-16 work experience and teacher placements
March: LSC contracts for work experience pre-16, teacher placements and other education business link activity
BUOYANT ON THE MERSEY : But continuity is the key, say partnership firms
On Merseyside, Mike McCann is both the manager of the Education Business Partnership at Merseyside Training and Enterprise Council, and the chairman of the national EBP network. Overall, he's optimistic about the new LSCs but, on Merseyside, there will have to be some rationalisation as the number of organisations is slimmed down. What is critical is the size of the budget the Government finds for EBP activity.
"There has been nothing in the past," says McCann. "It's all subject to July's comprehensive spending review. How successful the new arrangements are depends on how well the DFEE can fight its corner."
In the meantime, Merseyside's business links organisations have to negotiate the development of a local strategy and find the lead body.
He says: "In my area, we have six EBPs, two of which are housed within the careers company for their area." The new LSC will cross these boundaries: existing relationships will have to be redefined, which could have unforeseen consequences.
"Each EBP has a big pool of supportive employers - a company like Kodak has a huge role for young people in the area. It's important that we don't lose that local dimension.
"In a way, we're buying a pig in a poke," adds McCann. "It's going to be very difficult to write development plans until we know the budget."
Knowsley Compact is one of Merseyside's business links organisations. Compacts was originally an American idea - the Boston Compact was a local agreement whereby employers guaranteed young people jobs on condition that agreed targets at school were maintained. Crucially, the targets were largely non-academic, focusing instead on attendance, punctuality and the completion of assignments.
The American experiment was seen as a success and crossed the Atlantic as government policy in the Seventies. But the job guarantees fell by the wayside as the Eighties recession hit, and modern Compacts usually offer school leavers a certificate of attainment which demonstrates their reliability and employability.
Thousands of Knowsley's school leavers have become Compact graduates, but the Knowsley organisation differs from other schemes in that it also runs the whole spectrum of education business activity in the area - from teacher placements through to work experience.
Looking ahead to LSC implementation, Compact manager Dave Morgan argues:
"The biggest fear is about discontinuity. And the other issue is about the repositioning of different organisations. There's a need to identify partners. We already work to that model - we've rationalised education business activities in Knowsley around the Knowsley Compact and, obviously, we would want that to be the delivery agent.
"In the short run, the local EBPs are going to put in for the transitional funding as a group. We are suggesting that the existing arrangements continue: that the TEC and the Merseyside EBP fronts the group in the first instance. Some other EBPs will have to cede some independence and they're concerned about that."
And the schools? "We'll be looking for a seamless transfer," said Gerry Bedford, at Knowsley Hey comprehensive. "Schools have made a massive move over the past 15 years or so, tuning into what industry can provide." Bedford sees the benefits of activities such as mentoring and curriculum relevance - keeping young people motivated and on track.
Down the road at Brookfield, headteacher Pam Jervis is clear what she wants to see. "It's important that work experience, teacher placement and that whole raft of experiences funded and provided by the TEC carry on," she says. But with threshold payments and a host of other initiatives cluttering her in-tray, the move to LSCs hasn't been top of her agenda.
"At the moment, I've not fully thought through whether there will be a change or not," she says. "If I was talking to someone in the new LSC, I would have to say: 'Remember that some of these local initiatives work really well because the agencies know the kids and they know the area'."
Her local agency is the Compact and Dave Morgan's principal worry is about upsetting the network of local contacts he has built up over the years. "Between the six EBPs on Merseyside, we probably deal with up to 4,000 employers - it wouldn't take a lot to destabilise that."
Morgan thinks that the key issue will be about quality. "How do you demonstrate that EBP activity has any effect on performance? It's not easy to track, but it will be an issue. People want value for money."
His big concern is that EBPs will be judged by exam results. Knowsley is one of the UK's most deprived boroughs, and Morgan believes there are other criteria by which such initiatives should be judged. "My inclination would be to ask what effect it has on the lives of those individuals."
He argues that a decade of hype about NVQs, training targets and the national curriculum "seems to have been inspired by the Wizard of Oz's advice to the Straw Man - 'You don't need a brain, you need a diploma'." Employers, he says, are more interested in people - and so should be the education system.