Only connect

1st June 2001 at 01:00
The idea seems to be a winner - bring education and business closer together and everyone should be happier. Business gets people with the skills and knowledge it requires, and education knows it is achieving one of its objectives: supplying candidates who are ready for the world of work.

The problem is that the system set up to do this - education business partnerships - has failed to deliver. With some notable exceptions, partnerships have had limited success over the past decade. The new organisations set up to succeed these partnerships, Education Business Link Organisations, already seem to be working with the same staff, structures and limited creativity that blighted the progress of so many non-achieving EBPs.

Part of the problem is due to the Government's failure to understand what motivates businesses to become involved. Government hopes that private sector involvement will be a free lunch: new money, new dynamism, new skills - and all for free. Yet businesses, by and large, do not want to run schools and local education authorities. There are a few that do want to make money out of what they see as a new business line, but it is not obvious that the values that drive business turnrounds should also inform school turn-rounds. Nor will they provide value for money.

The concept of specialist schools that have an additional specialism in business and enterprise is desirable, but again there is a degree of naivety about the private sector providing free funding. It wants something in return, either by way of captive markets, free research or the first choice of high-quality students - all of which degrade the notion of education as a public good.

Where business and the public agenda coincide is in supporting school leadership. Most companies have a genuine interest in raising standards of school leadership, while others have an equal desire to ensure that young people get the skills they need for life and for future employment security.

The number of companies interested in providing this kind of support needs to be expanded and firms need to be encouraged, but this means government scaling back on its hopes for a massive infusion of free money and energy. It simply won't happen - and it is wrong that it should be expected.

For a start, the Department for Education andEmployment must redefine what EBLOs are all about. Initiatives must cross all phases, from primary to higher education, and they need to be coherent. The DFEE could start by explaining the many acronyms and abbreviations that put business people off. It should also identify role models - notably of leadership - that it wants others to emulate.

Business is confused and switched off by too many initiatives and organisations that all seem to be trying to do the same thing. For example, there is Excellence in Cities, education action zones, city academies, and many others.

The second area is the nature of many EBLO schemes. These are too short-term and too quick-fix. This is an example of where government is very un-joined up. The DFEE, the Department for Trade and Industry and the Treasury need to understand each other before they make random requests or agree separate funding strands for national bodies. The new funding mechanism for the business-link organisations is cumbersome and needs to be streamlined and improved.

The third improvement needed is to make the system run smoothly and be seen to have authority. The Government must listen to the main national link organisations. Menus of best practice must be made available on a suitable website, and it must be acknowledged that core funding will nearly always come from government. Let us escape the doctrine of the free lunch. (The DFEE's newly formed business development unit - business. - now has a great opportunity to put this right.) For effective business involvement, there needs to be greater clarity of purpose, an acceptance that education is a public good that requires public funding, and a more exciting shared vision of how everything connects. In this way, business will become more committed as the why, how and what fit together.

At the moment, no such cohesion exists. A mere handful of companies have shown a sustainable and meaningful presence. In this area, as in so many others, the Government's calls for public-private partnerships are a long way from being realised.

A world in which the public gets private involvement as an act of altruism is a pipe dream - and this notion has bedevilled this whole concept for too long.

Will Hutton is chief executive of the Industrial Society

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