A well of goodwill running dry

Employers are broadly behind the rethinking of 14 to 19 education. But many are worried they will be unable to absorb students for vocational work in the numbers the Government expects. Phil Revell reports.

If first impressions are everything, the Government's Green Paper on education for 14 to 19-year-olds has been a resounding success. Across the spectrum - from schools and colleges to work-based learning providers and regional bodies - the proposals have received a warm reception. Indeed, industry and commerce appear to be ecstatic.

The Confederation of British Industry "welcomed and endorsed" the Government's aims; the Institute of Directors "welcomed the proposals"; the TUC welcomed a bigger and better role for vocational education and training. "The thrust of the Green Paper is strongly welcomed," said the Engineering Council.

But beyond the first paragraph, there are some concerns among employers'

organisations about the niggling detail.

"We're supportive of the idea of getting away from the watershed at 16, and very supportive of the emphasis on applied courses," says Joe Eason, manager of training and education at Corus, formerly British Steel. "But the resources that are going to be required are very considerable."

Mr Eason points out that real vocational education cannot be delivered entirely inside a classroom. Those following the new vocational pathways - whether at school or college - will need time in the workplace to bring the theory to life.

"Schools are already fully stretched, as are employers," he says. "We are going to need expertise to facilitate these placements."

The CBI made a detailed 38-point response to the Green Paper. It opened with a statement of support, but it was soon banging a familiar drum by stressing the need to ensure that young people leave compulsory education with the basic skills employers need.

"The number of young people lacking basic skills is a national disgrace," said Susan Anderson, the confederation's director of human resources policy, when the Green Paper was published. "The Government's top priority must be to ensure that virtually all young people have mastered the basics of literacy and numeracy. All other proposals are second order to this," she said.

The move to GCSEs in vocational subjects was welcomed, but the CBI points out that the desire for a high-quality vocational route for young people has been a government aspiration for 50 years, although "these aspirations have so far not been accomplished".

In 1991, a White Paper also put forward proposals for "achieving equal recognition between vocational and academic qualifications". But, as the CBI points out, we're still waiting.

The CBI was not the only response to the Green Paper to point to the Adult Learning Inspectorate's damning indictment of work-based learning, with more than half of the 324 providers graded so far this year judged to be inadequate.

"The real issue is not whether work-based provision is getting worse," said David Sherlock, chief inspector for adult education. "Although excellent provision does exist, too few of our young people are really getting the quality of vocational training that they should rightfully expect."

The Government's response has been a "robust action plan", announced on June 11, with more monitoring, more support for employers and more resources for learning and skills councils to help them to implement reforms.

The scale of the task can be judged by a look at Ofsted's inspection reports for FE colleges. Those with Beacon awards for their employer links are still getting very poor grades for their work-based learning programmes. Often, the main difficulty is getting employers interested in the first place. In theory, this is where the education business links organisations ought to be able to play a crucial role - but they have had a rough ride for the past 18 months.

"It's been a difficult period," says Mike McCann, chief executive of the National Education Business Partnerships Network.

His organisations have just gone through a period of re-organisation, with "lead bodies" being constituted in each area and negotiations with individual learning and skills councils about funding. The core work of the organisations is built around work placements for pupils and staff, but few see their role in such limited terms. There was real disappointment that the Green Paper mis-stated the terms under which the organisations operate, and disappointment too at the way their role was confined in the reforms to a single paragraph at the back of the document.

"Education business partnerships could have a critical role in supporting the employer," says Mr McCann.

But there are issues of resourcing and understanding.

"LSCs provide just about enough resources to sustain existing levels of activity," he says. "And we strongly welcome the idea of building a curriculum around individual needs. But the reality is that it will require individual mentoring and action plans."

Mr McCann does not believe that Connexions will have the resources to carry out that support role. He's also worried about whether business has the capacity to absorb the numbers of young people that the Government would like to see going down the vocational route.

"I have my doubts," he says. "You can only go to the well so many times."

It is a concern echoed by Business in the Community, one of the best-known business links organisations. "Can employers provide these kinds of experiences?" asks BITC's Peter Davies. "For many employers, it will go well beyond what they currently offer."

The response from Metskill, the training body for the metals industry, emphasised the point.

"Employers in general welcome the Green Paper but are very concerned about their ability to respond to it," said Peter Hill, Metskill's manager for new entrants and careers. "Over the past three years, we have been de-manning in the metals industry and there aren't the people in the companies to give the time to education business links."

Hard-pressed manufacturers in other industries have said similar things. But Metskill argues that the answer lies in the education business links organisations and the new "sector skills councils".

"The operation of link activities will be of paramount importance," said Metskill's submission to the Green Paper consultation. "It will require both clear responsibilities and funding."

First impressions may be the basis for future relationships - and if they are, the Department for Education and Skills is in for a smooth ride. Most employers are genuinely keen to meet the government agenda half way. But doubts about the role of Connexions advisers, the capacity of employers to meet the demand in work-based learning and the failure to understand the need for buffer organisations between education and business - all these have the potential to derail the Government's plans.

Most employers applauded what they saw as a genuine attempt at consultation. But what comes through time and again from their organisations is the need for simple routes that will be clearly understood by teachers, parents and individual employers. This is not something that the Government should rush into.

"We can't afford to under-cook this," says Joe Eason at Corus.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you