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Who needs Alan Sugar?

As the TV entrepreneur sets out on his latest quest to find an apprentice, Sue Jones looks at how some more humble businesses are filling their skills gaps

In two years' time, Liverpool will be packed with people tramping into galleries, theatres, concert halls, exhibition spaces - anywhere that is displaying the city's arts. There will be no shortage of art, but the tramping might be a problem. "The European Capital of Culture is coming to Liverpool and we don't have enough people to put the flooring down," says John Garvey, owner of Carpeting Merseyside. "We can't get enough tradesmen."

The shortage was not caused by a one-off arts event. Commercial premises and housing associations are undertaking major refurbishments, and replacing kitchens is a regular part of the modern home-owner's lifestyle.

Locally, one-third of under-25s are unemployed, but Mr Garvey could not find enough skilled workers to meet his order book. So, with other local small companies and a training provider, he started an apprenticeship.

Carpet-laying is not the only skills shortage. When we lag behind our competitors in education and training, few employers would quarrel with the principles of the 14-19 agenda; better access to training and vocational education for young people, clearly defined vocational career paths, and business and education working more closely together.

Apprenticeships are one of the main drivers to fill the skills gap. Funded by the Learning and Skills Council, they bring together employers, colleges and training providers. John and Carol Burrows, owners of the Upper Cut group of hairdressing salons in Weston Super Mare, value them for recruitment, retention and expansion as well as the skills training. "We would only have half the business if we didn't have the training," says Mr Burrows.

Upper Cut, which has Beacon status, offers work experience to six local schools. "It's important for youngsters to see the industry they're contemplating going into, and we get a chance to look at them," says Mr Burrows. "You build up a relationship with schools and everybody wins."

Entrepreneurs work with schools because they are part of their local community, they supply their workforce and their customers. Local LSCs contract with Education Business Links Organisations, which have been bringing schools and industry together since the 1980s. Nationally, the LSC works with employers on initiatives such as training guides, Train to Gain and the Quality Mark for training providers.

"Business people want to see a new slant on education," says Steve Dumbell, chief executive of Knowsley Development Trust and winner of the Queen's Award for Enterprise Promotion. "People come out of school without any idea of modern business practice. Employability skills and the subtle skills of knowing what business is about are not taught."

So he created the Knowsley Enterprise Academy. Based in a business park, it enables pupils and teachers to visit companies and get involved in courses and projects tutored by local entrepreneurs. One of it's many projects enables students to refurbish donated bicycles and pass them on to children involved in the local sure start programme.

"It's a bit deeper than altruism," he says. "When businesses interview people, it's difficult to find the ones with the right interpersonal skills. Most of our young people who struggle with GCSEs are kinaesthetic learners. They can respond to emerging needs and they're the people who respond best to these programmes. They're an untapped resource."

A factor that has focused many employers' minds on the 14-19s is the ageing population. Social workers, for example, have traditionally been late entrants, but Andrea Rowe, chief executive of Skills for Care, says employers are keen to help develop the new specialised diploma at key stage 4. She hopes it will spark a new interest in this sector among young people, especially if they can see clear progression through the specialised diploma, apprenticeships and foundation degrees to a worthwhile career ladder."

So Skills for Care is working with two other sector skills councils to make the diploma broad enough to be an introduction to health work and community justice as well as social work.

High-tech industries also want to be involved with the diploma to get the future workers with the skills and flexibility they need. "We, as employers, need to understand that we can't just sit back and expect them to be ready," says Andy Hill, who represents Vodafone on the IT diploma steering committee led by sector skills council E-Skills. "This is a fantastic opportunity to shape something that's going to work for everybody. If we don't, we can't complain. This is real learning for us and, hopefully, for people in education."

But there are difficulties. While everyone agrees young people should have "functional" literacy and numeracy within GCSEs, defining those in practice is a conundrum for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to solve by 2009 for English and ICT and 2010 for maths.

Increasing numbers of young people will be hoping for access to busy workplaces. Young apprenticeships (involving 50 days of work experience) at key stage 4 have already started and specialised diplomas will begin in 2008, with all 14 lines available across England by 2013.

There are health and safety and child protection implications for young people educated off the school site. And regulations have yet to be made defining appropriate tasks for a young person in, say, an elderly care home.

Employers have already been involved in developing young apprenticeships, which have given 14 to 16-year-olds the opportunity to spend time regularly in FE colleges or with employers, and their specialised input will raise the credibility of the new diplomas, says Bridie Sullivan, the LSC's senior policy manager for 14-19.

QCA's head of sector skills, Teresa Bergin, has found "unanimous support"

for the diplomas at meetings of employers in engineering technology and food manufacturing. They want to see the development of specific skills, such as problem solving and creativity, and the diplomas "take a strategic approach to the provision of qualifications in schools enabling a coherent offer in the 14-19 landscape that currently doesn't exist".

But not all employers are convinced of the need for wholesale reform. "It's not clear where the demand for specialised diplomas is coming from," says Dr Richard Wilson, the Institute of Directors' head of business policy.

"There are several thousand qualifications around and many have stood the test of time. People in schools could be allowed to work towards them."

GCSEs are not suitable for everyone and vocational opportunities are useful for some young people, he said. "Schools are for general education. It's fundamental that people leave school able to read and write and with decent level 2 qualifications, but employers have to provide their own training."

Vocational qualifications are best developed by awarding bodies, according to employer demand. And FE colleges, which have demonstrated a high level of employer satisfaction, should be properly funded, he added.


National Education Business Partnerships Network, sets up links between education and industryDepartment for Education and Skills, click on employers; and Skills Council, click on employerSector Skills Development Agency, links to employer-led sector skills councils developing qualifications for all industries

Learning and Skills Development Agency, click on employers

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, develops national curriculum, accredits and monitors qualifications taken in schools colleges and workplaces

* On the plus side, as well as improved results and progression rates, schools have seen noticeable improvements in students' behaviour, responding well to the more adult college environment. An evaluation of the Government's 14-19 pathfinders says they have brought "a significant broadening of curriculum provision and... enhanced student information, support and guidance processes".

Karen Murray, senior policy manager with the LSC, says pupils' perception of schemes such as the increased flexibility programme and young apprenticeships is crucial: "I think on both programmes, the kind of feedback we are getting from pupils is similar in that they value learning in different settings. They value having the experience brought closer to the world of work.

"One of the aspects that's very important to us is about honouring that offer. And whatever we are offering young people in terms of vocational provision, we have to make sure we deliver it. Selection and recruitment, getting the right young person on the right programme is very important."

Meanwhile, the Kingswood Partnership in East Bristol, has integrated large parts of its timetable and developed systems of student support across all six schools and the City of Bristol college. All the schools use the same IT platform and there's a common assessment system.

Bristol's Sir Bernard Lovell school is also piloting the use of an online "personalised learning environment". Using laptops, every student can log on to their own pages, send and receive emails and access a calendar with important dates, homework diary and exam timetables.

The partnership employs off-site student support manager Heather Reed, who liaises with the schools and college, and acts as contact for the 14 to 16-year-olds attending courses. She also links with employers to offer students extended work experience, and collates results on students'

progress and attendance. If there is an issue about behaviour or engagement with the course, she liaises with schools and parents. Her role has had a significant impact on improving attendance and completion rates.

How does she see the benefits to students of the 14-19 agenda? "It gives them a better outlook on life. It's opening up opportunities, showing them what's involved and what avenues they can go down," she said. "The most important part is having that close liaison between all parties. I can support them when other staff can't."

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