Taking a role, but not control;Commentary;Opinion

26th June 1998 at 01:00
The Secretary of State for Education must be disappointed with the level of support from business for the first 25 education action zones announced this week. Most of the pound;19m pledged is in kind not cash, a far cry from having one in five zones run by industry.

What did David Blunkett expect? Twelve years ago Kenneth Baker, then the Secretary of State, was humiliated when exhortations to industry to run 20 city technology colleges were rebuffed.

The initiative was bailed out by the Treasury and limped towards the millennium as an uncertain alliance between Government and captains of industry. There were remarkable success stories among the 15 colleges created, but nothing like the vision of privatisation cherished by the Conservatives.

Business and industry do not want to control education; they want to share in it, advise on planning and policy and have a role in shaping the curriculum to ensure that schools and colleges equip people for the world of work. To these ends, they will commit high levels of cash and staff time, as this edition of Business Links shows. It gives overwhelming evidence, not just of what business can achieve but what it has already done.

Three groups that bring the public and private sectors together are Business in the Community (BITC), education business partnerships (EBPs) and training and enterprise councils (TECs). Considerable achievements by all three feature in these pages.

The future is anyone's guess as Labour pushes its agenda for regional development agencies. David Blunkett's fundamental six-month review of TECs aims to "improve" their contribution to its education, training and enterprise.

Business in the Community's influence will remain strong since it represents the industrial leaders courted by Tony Blair before and after his election. Education business partnerships will remain vital agents for local links between schools, colleges and business.

David Blunkett must now think about how to bring such agencies closer together. Past initiatives failed because they were fragmented. So many schemes created under the Tories - business links, opting out, private finance initiative - were individual responses to pressures on the Treasury.

The zones are a melting pot of experiments such as homework clubs, pupil mentoring and teacher placements, aimed at solving problems of disaffection, underachievement, drugs, skills shortages and a lack of enterprise.

What is new about the zones is not the content but the co-ordination of good ideas nationally backed and delivered by local partnerships. Why stop at the zones? The Secretary of State should reform the entire government support for education and employment along these lines. Small sums like pound;19m (in cash or kind) go a lot further that way.

Ian Nash, Editor, Business Links.

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