'Prosperous high streets need prosperous back streets'

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Ian Pearce pleads for joint public-private partnerships to be realised on a much larger scale.

EDUCATION is becoming more important than ever for individual life-chances and national competitiveness in this new age of the knowledge worker. The "lost generation" of the under-educated facing lifelong unemployment demonstrates this. But evidence that partnerships improve the performance of our education system is embryonic in the UK - so far.

This partly results from the piecemeal approach to public-private sector partnerships developed by the last government. In response to specific problems, employers were engaged to help develop specific solutions.

Starting with business education (the Technical Vocational Educational Initiative and work experience) and the Enterprise Initiative (teacher placements) and moving on to the work-related curriculum (key skills and records of achievement) and supporting young people at-risk (compacts and mentoring), we have seen two decades of a step-by-step approach to partnership.

Local Education Business Partnerships (EBPs) were created to ensure quality and coherence. Sadly, funding depended upon ministerial preference for specific initiatives and, with the exception of TVEI, it has proved marginal and short-term. In part, too, the limited impact of partnerships results from our European culture where the public sector is seen as responsible for the education system and there are few incentives to encourage the private sector to be a major player.

We now have a host of single-objective partnership programmes. Added value is inevitably limited to specific projects and cohorts of students - for example, compacts helped raise achievement but for a few hundred thousand students over a limited period. Indeed, it is hard to disassemble and prove the impact of partnership initiatives.

The opposite is the case in many localities in the United States where it is culturally common for public and private sectors to work together on policy and implementation of educational improvement. The regeneration of Pittsburgh is one example.

The UK should take the opportunity of the current consensus on improving educational standards to move on. We need much bigger public-private sector partnerships capable of planning long-term policies, integrating effective strategies and generating sufficient resources to modernise the UK education and training systems.

Partnership is not charity. The vast tail of under-achievement costs employers more than Pounds 10 billion upskilling the "functionally illiterate" - "prosperous high streets need prosperous back streets" as Marks Spencer put it.

Tomorrow's public-private sector partnerships should develop learning communities integrating public-private sector expertise and facilities across regions and localities. This should involve all levels of government, consortia of businesses and the engagement of the skills of all ages through the voluntary sector. Such integration across both public and private sectors will challenge our governmental and public sector culture. Creating a learning community for all will challenge our outdated elitist education system. It is essential that we change both.

This will only happen if government, business and education agree to joint action at top levels through strategic partnerships nationally and regionally. Public cash is limited, but business would do much more if government encouraged large-scale partnerships and developed US-type fiscal incentives to reward those investing in education. Companies are already targeting achievement levels, such as in the BT Aim High awards, by engaging mainstream resources, especially employee expertise through mentors and tutors, assignment placements and training facilities.

This year, Business in the Community committed its 450 members to support basic skills 4-11, young people at-risk and management for improved school performance in the l,000 secondary and 4,000 primary schools serving disadvantaged communities in the form of Education Action Areas. In addition, member companies are committing support for Welfare to Work schemes and volunteer programmes to aid the training of unemployed youth.

Many in government are working with business and the voluntary sector on policies and strategies to raise the skills base across communities. Some good examples are the Labour Government's Millennium Volunteer and New Deal initiatives, local authority and TEC schemes in Birmingham, Essex, Kent and Newham.

The teaching profession, under pressure to raise standards with tight budgets, is increasingly looking for business support to complement mainstream teaching, develop new learning technologies and improve school management. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, is seeking major business partnerships on school Internet links, primary school infrastructure and the National Year of Reading.

We have an opportunity to go big on partnership scale and breadth. Business in the Community's business leaders are frustrated by years of good but small-scale partnership projects. They are looking to the new Government for a concord on resourcing education and training, developing consensus-based long-term policies, spreading proven strategies for competitive skills and focusing on the tail of under-achievement in the most disadvantaged communities. Big partnerships mean big resources and big impact.

* Ian Pearce is director of education for Business in the Community

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