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26th November 1999 at 00:00
Colleges need to catch up with schools when it comes to industry placements. Ian Nash finds that current educational reforms provide the perfect opportunity

It has long been assumed that schools have a lot to learn from further education colleges when it comes to industry and enterprise. Yet research shows that colleges are failing to exploit links with the world of business.

Results of a study carried out by the Further Education Development Agency, one of the leading agencies supporting the post-16 sector, have come as a surprise to senior managers in colleges. The FEDA's report, Business Associates in Colleges, shows that only 5.7 per cent of colleges have had people on placement from industry in the past year - less than half the proportion of schools. It also says schools have the most systematic approach to placements. Chris Hughes, FEDA chief executive, is blunt in stressing the need for colleges to consider similar methods.

The research shows that businesses and colleges recognise the benefits placements can bring. Two of the most important advantages mentioned by employers are an improved understanding of education and qualifications (cited by 31 per cent of respondents), and the personal development of the secondee (cited by 27 per cent of respondents).

The research also shows that college principals consider improved business links (31 per cent) and curriculum enhancement (28 per cent) the biggest advantages to such placements.

Business leaders have been badgering schools and colleges to offer studies relevant to the world of work since 1976, when the Labour Government launched its "Great Debate", which examined education and its relevance to society.

Groups such as Business in the Community - the Prince of Wales' "club" of leading entrepreneurs - have had a powerful influence on politicians when it comes to curriculum reforms. But the FEDA research suggests the most substantial impact has been on schools.

Chris Hughes suggests FE colleges use the forthcoming reform of post-16 education and training to catch up. The Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils are to be abolished and replaced by a Learning and Skills Council covering all college and workplace education and training.

"The new Learning and Skills Council will put an emphasis on preparing people for employment. To do this effectively, colleges will need teaching staff with up-to-date industrial experience and solid links with business.

"Staff exchanges between business and colleges are the most effective way of ensuring these new imperatives. It is time to put in place a systematic approach to staff development," says Mr Hughes.

Case studies also reveal the extent to which such links improve workable training and attract new recruits to colleges from staff in industry. One of the study companies, Iceland, offered 200 free shares to staff who completed their appraisal objectives, achieved national vocational qualifications in customer service and scored 80 per cent in a "secret shopper" evaluation (where a company representative arrives unannounced to rate individual performance).

As a result, many embarked on college courses to improve their general skills, a trend the Labour Government wants to encourage as part of its lifelong learning agenda.

For further information, contact the publications department of the FEDA, Spring Gardens, Citadel Place, Tinworth Street, London SE11 5EH. Tel: 0171 840 5400

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