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There has been a lot of discussion in the FE sector and in the media about the quality of education services Britain is providing to its young people and adults. Lifelong Learning UK, the sector skills council for post-compulsory education, believes that a joint effort from government, industry and training providers is crucial in improving and updating FE.

Recently, the Government has announced several new investments in further education in England, aiming to ensure that young people and adults are best equipped for the tough employment market. Initiatives such as Back Young Britain (FE News 5.11) demonstrate an increased commitment to work experience placements and apprenticeships, and the National Skills Strategy outlines a much needed simplification of the skills environment and strengthening of frontline services.

Towards Ambition 2020: skills, jobs, growth, by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), outlined a major challenge for our employment and skills system that needs to be addressed, stating: "Current employment and skills systems in the UK are neither fully integrated, nor sufficiently aligned to labour market needs. They are also excessively complex because they do not empower customers to drive demand, performance or quality improvement".

UKCES proposes that this be addressed through the creation of a "strategic, agile and labour market-led" employment and skills system. One of the recommendations made for the simplification of the skills landscape is to "require that all publicly funded learning institutions in a local labour market consult widely and collaboratively with employers and other stakeholders in their community, and utilise available national and spatial labour market information, to annually shape their mix of provision to best meet the needs of that labour market".

Catalyst is a powerful example of how Lifelong Learning UK is already addressing this. Business Interchange, part of this programme, supports teachers, tutors and trainers from the FE sector in England to take up structured work placements, to update their vocational knowledge and skills.

The purpose of this programme is to address a common view from many employers - that prospective employees lack relevant skills for the workplace. Business Interchange works on the premise that course content should be shaped by the relevant sector, and up-to-date with emerging industry needs. The success of this programme, with over 1,600 teachers, tutors and trainers already signed up, suggests that training providers and employers are more than eager to work together, and simply require the assistance and guidance of a best practice framework to do so.

For many of the teachers, trainers and tutors who have taken part in a Business Interchange placement so far, it has offered them the opportunity to return to their vocational sector, and in some cases it has been as long as ten years, since they have worked in the industry in which they teach. All the feedback received so far suggests that both the tutors and the employers find the experience beneficial, many forming ongoing employer engagement links which ultimately benefit students and their learning.

Colleges and businesses have benefited by forging closer working relationships. Richard Pearson, a trainer from Manchester College of Arts and Technology, took part in a Business Interchange placement earlier this year. Richard found the most valuable aspect of the experience was forging closer links with local businesses, who could then tell him directly what they needed from the new recruits he trains. He said: "Through working with businesses, we can now design courses that are directly tailored to learners’ needs; students go away with a good foundation knowledge of best practice, which can only be good for raising the profile of the industry in the long term."

John Williams, executive chef at the Ritz Restaurant in London, and chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts, recently had two tutors join his team for a Business Interchange placement. He feels that the more teachers you have coming to the front line, seeing what is happening in industry, the better. He is a firm believer in sharing information between businesses and education and is an advocate of work placements, whether they be for learners or tutors. He said: "The more information we spread, the more we talk, the more we understand, the better our industry will be - everywhere will improve," and added: "Every employer has a responsibility to help the whole of the country to help teach and train to the highest levels."

Although the core funding for Business Interchange is due to finish by the end of March 2010, Lifelong Learning UK firmly believes that this type of model, and the benefits it brings, should become standard practice for FE providers and not just a bolt-on programme for the here and now. If we are to realise the vision of a "strategic, agile and labour market-led employment and skills system", then it is vital that we continue to invest in developing and maintaining strong relationships between education and learning providers, and industry.

Alan Clarke, is Catalyst's sector engagement manager at LLUK, the sector skills council for post-compulsory education

Towards Ambition 2020: skills, jobs, growth is available from www.ukces.org.uk

For more information about Business Interchange, visit www.businessinterchange.org

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