Small is dutiful

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Local businesses are keen to help with lifelong learning but they need a leg-up, says Andrew Mourant

More money, less bureaucracy, better quality. That's what everyone connected with business in education hopes will trickle down from the Learning and Skills Council. And the starting point - affecting all schools and colleges - is to bring the array of support groups together through local consortia.

But the new Education Business Links Organisations (EBLOs) will not evolve overnight. The spirit may be willing but manpower is often thin on the ground. Many involved in small business would like to get involved in educational links but are often too hard-pressed earning a living. Indeed, the surprise is that so many do commit themselves.

"Small business people don't always have the time or support to bring their expertise to the party," says Peter Westgarth, chief executive of Young Enterprise. "But, because they are entrepreneurs, they believe strongly enough to give some of their time - a third of all people who support us come from small businesses.

"There are a lot of small businesses involved in working with Young Enterprise, but in education there can be a fear factor. They may not know what is expected of them. EBLOs will provide a menu of tried and tested procedures."

For attracting businesses, marketing and publicity help to make a difference. Barbara Chantrill, chief executive of Leicester's Business Education Company, says: "We put a lot of effort into this and have a good hit rate with the local press on stories about links with the various players."

Meanwhile, for Maniza Ntekim of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), it is important that LSCs get information out clearly about what is possible.

"It is a misconception to assume small firms don't want to get involved. Within the LSC, there is a small business service with a major responsibility for being that one-stop shop. There should now be an ability to know where to send people first time round."

The Learning and Skills Council admits there have been difficulties in areas where a large number of organisations have to be yoked together, while it also has to grapple with a mixed legacy from the training and enterprise councils.

"In some parts of the country, very few education business links activity existed," an LSC spokesman says. "The TEC's promotion of the consortia approach was variable. Ours has been the first to ensure a minimum level of activity in every local LSC area - all 47 have a budget to support link activities. It is expected that where partnerships are ad hoc, full consortia will form over time."

But no deadline has been set. Meanwhile, in the wings, those with a vested interest watch, wait and try to influence events wherever possible. "You have to be hopeful," says Mike McCann, chairman of the Education Business Partnership network. He is more optimistic now than late last year, when the EBP was campaigning against what it saw as government tight-fistedness. "At something like pound;17 million, the regional funding levels for education and business activity were totally inadequate," he says.

But he reckons that LSC chief executive John Harwood took a sympathetic view. Before long, the Government found another pound;6m. "Twenty-five million pounds has been promised for the two years after that," he says. "It does give us more security - we welcome the planning and commitment. But it doesn't give much scope for growth."

The LSC is also inheriting pound;40m as "legacy funding" from the Training and Enterprise Council for its Local Initiative Fund. "The LSC has urged that this money be used on education business links," Mr McCann explains. "It has given us something to start with."

But with the financial benefits, some unexpected bureaucracy also cme the way of the Skills Council.

"There's a major issue around VAT," says Mr McCann. "Previous work that came through TECs was VAT-exempt, and it isn't clear whether that will be on-going. If VAT were liable, it is virtually a 17.5 per cent cut in the level of funding."

While such details matter, Mr McCann regards a spirit of co-operation with the LSC is crucial to get the new consortia functioning quickly. In theory, these will provide a one-stop shop for businesses that want to establish educational links. "I think in the medium term, more businesses will get involved," he says. "But at the moment, EBLOs are very introspective. In time, people using them will want a local flavour - that's the challenge."

Each consortium's annual report to its local LSC - which is a new condition of funding - should make interesting reading. It will outline the impact that these arrangements have had on schools, colleges and businesses - for example, whether there has been a beneficial impact on business and staff development; whether a business profile has been enhanced; whether a school curriculum has benefited.

Anything that streamlines and simplifies the links process is welcomed by the CBI.

"The most important thing is that LSC can provide businesses with a one-stop shop," says Maniza Ntekim, the CBI's policy adviser. "There used to be a lot of confusion with businesses not knowing where to go. We are in the process of building links with local LSCs - feeling our way along.

"We also want more quality assessment of links. The CBI has, since 1988, been calling for links with businesses at all levels, including primary schools, but is worried about the quality. Businesses don't just want to be seen as providers of funds. They want to help the employability of people in their area."

Peter Westgarth, chief executive of Young Enterprise, is pleased that the Government has committed itself to a three-year funding plan. "When you're trying to set things up in education, that's the minimum you need," he says.

But in the short term, Young Enterprise is experiencing a hiatus: no contract has yet been financed between itself and any consortium.

"It's an interesting time," says Mr Westgarth wryly. "A major problem for organisations like us is cash flow. We continue to employ staff in the hope that we will grow and develop our activity."

Young Enterprise, set up in 1963 by business people in Kent, brings youngsters together to understand what is needed to make a good business.

It aims to develop a basic knowledge of enterprise, pitched at people with learning difficulties, undergraduates interested in running a business, and at working with teachers in the classroom.

"We have 10,000 business volunteers and links with 2,500 colleges and secondary schools," says Mr Westgarth. "We delivered to 70,000 children in the last academic year, so we do require consistent support.

"Working with all the local LSCs, there will be pressure on administration. When each beds down, the nature of the support will become clear."

For Business in the Community, the one-stop shop is an attraction; not so the level of funding.

"We feel it will be more straightforward for business and education to be put in touch," says Nigel Purkis, BITC's deputy director of education. "Everyone agrees on the idea of having one organisation. It will be a lot simpler."

But for John May, BITC's director of education, the money is a disappointment after the noises about major change made in the Government's White Paper.

"Member companies are concerned that this will be sufficient only to enable business links to continue at their current level," he says. "If links are to move on from being the preserve of the enthusiast, they must be properly funded."

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