SEARCHING for natural ingredients to prolong the shelf-life of healthy-eating cakes may not sound like a crucial project for school pupils. Yet, according to John Botten, chairman of the Education Business Partnership National Network, this is just the kind of task that prepares young people for the world of work.
The cake assignment is one of many set by the Food and Farming Challenge in Warwickshire, supported by the EBP, where companies present pupils with a range of work situations. They were also asked to help the Warwickshire-based company design packaging and create a marketing image to improve supermarket sales of its cakes.
"When EBPs first started, their work was seen as being on the margin of school activity," says Mr Botten. "It enriched the curriculum but was not essential. The realisation has now developed that the key purpose of education is the preparation of young people for adult working life and this cannot be done solely in the classroom with textbooks."
EBPs create the links between businesses and schools, allowing pupils to experience work situations before the time comes to get a job. "If schools want to do a bit more with companies, then their first point of reference should be the local EBP."
There are 180 EBPs throughout the country, which in the past year have been responsible for creating up to a million work placements for pupils.
"Five years ago there was a feeling on the business side that this was a nice thing to do if you had spare time. Now, however, they recognise its importance. "
Not all placements are successful, but, according to Mr Botten, for each work experience that is unsatisfactory there are another three that are rewarding. "I wouldn't pretend there are no problems with work experience but I believe the number of unsatisfactory placements are diminishing. The only way to understand what is needed to be ready for work is by being there."
Work experience is not the only focus of the EBP operation. Bringing employees into schools to meet pupils, providing careers guidance and sending teachers out on work placements are also high priorities. For the last five years, EBPs on a local level have also been working to establish the National Record of Achievement - a scheme that lays out a young person's broader accomplishments for recognition by a prospective employer.
"The National Record of Achievement identifies skills that employers are looking for, apart from the five A to C grade GCSEs. If a young person has worked as a babysitter, for example, it shows evidence that they are responsible and trustworthy, which are important characteristics to an employer."
Now, however, the Department for Education and Employment has revealed plans to repackage the NRA and change its name and image. "We have worked for the last five years training youngsters to use the current format and employers have been gradually getting used to them. I believe the plan to throw out its old title comprehensively could be a backward step," says Mr Botten.
The EBP National Network was set up in December 1995 as a single point of contact for government and international corporations. "The creation of the National Network has enabled us to work closely with the DFEE on work experience, careers guidance and all aspects of our operation."
The network is now planning to tackle the issue of quality assurance within its work and that of other organisations on careers guidance, management of business activities, records of achievement and work experience. It has sent out questionnaires to various organisations to discuss the subject and the possibility of creating quality awards which could be recognised throughout the country.
"We are very interested in quality awards and want to give a greater coherence to our own and other people's. We are looking at what awards are on offer and finding out whether other groups want to collaborate with us to stitch together various accreditations.
"We are very committed to the importance of quality. For us the first stage is to get the activity up and running and then look at how we can improve it."