Too much management and not enough delivery
Working in around 30 of the 47 government-run learning and skills council (LSC) areas, there's not much chief executive Paul Poulter doesn't know about striking up partnerships between the commercial and education worlds.
"Nationally, we have a database of 90,000 employers who work with us," he says. "Our main programme is the work experience. We work primarily through LSCs and education business links; also with the Youth Justice Board and a variety of Connexions services."
These organisations are working to achieve the same national policy objective - delivering a core work-related component for schools - but Mr Poulter is struck by the "disparity in practice and implementation" from one area to another.
"It's a tension we struggle with," he says. "It comes down to people in key positions and, to an extent, local politics. I think this disparity is an issue for government and schools - it brings confusion in the minds of teachers and possibly employers. As a national body we probably see that more than other organisations.
"There are vast differences in the attitudes of LSCs and their degree of engagement with the education-business link organisations. Some manage with a light touch. Others micromanage from start to finish - in our view, a waste of time and money. You spend so much on the management of delivery rather than delivery itself - a huge waste.
"Within each LSC, the tendering process is different. In one LSC, the contract for work-related learning was split between five different providers. You get tensions and competitions within the same organisation.
There's no template."
Mr Poulter recommends piloting an approach of shorter contracts with specified outcomes - "but how you get there is, by and large, up to you".
"The LSCs could audit you at any time - and if you haven't fulfilled your contract, you won't get another one.
Contracts as thick as a doorstep - "out of all proportion to the value or their activity" - are alien to someone with a background in industry. Mr Poulter, who came to Trident having been managing director of a computing company, also despairs of the laggardly funding process.
"If we waited for government funding for development work, we wouldn't fund anything," he says. "We have lost two development grants from DfES. We can't rely on funding streams apparently available for work-related training to be delivered locally. We have to find other sources - this involves bank loans; or developing materials and new services in a way we can charge schools directly for. You could say it's been a valuable lesson but it's quite disappointing.
He cherishes Trident's relationship with employers, of which around 80 per cent are small to medium enterprises. But sometimes he senses hostility from consortiums or LSCs wanting to push themselves to the fore with employers.
"It's not easy to sustain relationships," he says. "Sometimes we have redoubled our efforts to engage directly with employers who work with us."