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Beacons of excellence feel draught

How are city technology colleges, the bright young things of the Eighties, adjusting to a shifting political climate? Mark Whitehead reports on new developments.

The city technology colleges, born in the white heat of the Thatcher revolution as beacons of excellence free from town-hall bureaucracy, are facing a problem.

Left high and dry when industry funding dwindled with a mere 15 colleges in their ranks, they now find themselves washed up in the middle of the caring 1990s with words like "partnership" coming back into vogue and, more worryingly, a possible Labour government appearing just around the corner. Now is the time to make new friends.

With the political barometer reading "changeable", the CTCs are undergoing an identity crisis. Even the organisation representing them has had to change its title to the Technology Colleges Trust to reflect the fact that it now also represents dozens of the new breed of specialist schools created as a cheaper alternative to the original over-ambitious Government plan.

Many of the latest additions, confusingly, are not even technology colleges, but specialist schools concentrating on such things as languages and, in the new batch to be announced next month, sports and arts.

The trust's fourth annual conference, held in Bradford last week, seemed like a trip back in time: packed into a mere two days and starting at the unnaturally early hour of 8.30am, featuring "break-out sessions" and "time-out resource workshops" and swarming with representatives from sponsoring companies, it was a tribute to 1988, the year Tory education chief Kenneth Baker spoke in messianic tones of the coming educational revolution.

Old friends such as schools minister Robin Squire praised the work of the technology schools, where recent examination results were well above the national average. "They continue to develop, innovate and lead the way, " he told the audience of heads and teachers from the schools.

The Office for Standards in Education chief Chris Woodhead said technology was at the heart of the world in which we live and technology education was the key to international success. Thanks to the encouragement of agencies like the Technology Colleges Trust, Britain is well ahead.

The trust's new best friend, Labour's shadow education secretary David Blunkett, was not one to spoil the party on his first appearance at the annual conference. Eager to build bridges with the institutions once branded as a Tory attempt to destroy local education authorities and reintroduce selection, Mr Blunkett praised the CTCs' innovations and repeatedly invoked the notion of diversity. Under Labour, he said, CTCs and technology schools would be part of the "family of schools".

"The recent development of specialist schools has shown that partnerships can be effectively used to help determine the most appropriate candidates to become technology colleges, and can ensure that the new colleges become a resource for other schools and the wider community.

"Labour believes in diversity and excellence. I want to see many more schools playing to their strengths, developing what they are best at, and using new technology to spread that excellence within the local family of schools. "

With his talk of the millennium, a forward-looking "can-do" approach and the tremendous opportunities for sharing resources through new technology, Mr Blunkett received a warm welcome.

But even after a speech setting out his plans, a question remained. It was put by the trust's chief executive Kathleen Lund: What exactly will happen to the CTCs if Labour comes back into power?

The CTCs and technology schools would have their place in the new framework, he said, and the extra funding of Pounds 100 per pupil would remain. But its benefits would be shared among the family of schools.

"It will be available on the basis of a shared, community perspective, otherwise it will lead to the growth of a two-tier system," he said. But beyond more talk of families and partnerships, the future remained unclear.

Sir Cyril Taylor, the trust's chairman, welcomed the Labour education spokesman. "Your presence today is a symbol that technology and language colleges have gained all-party support," he ventured, thanking Mr Blunkett for his help in establishing technology schools in Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham.

The trust, said Sir Cyril, supports collaboration with local authorities and neighbouring schools. Extra funding brought with it an obligation to help other schools by, for example, setting up homework centres, developing distance learning materials and providing teacher training and adult education.

Sir Cyril later explained that with around one in ten schools joining the ranks of the specialist institutions next year - and rising to perhaps as many as 50 per cent in time - a new educational sector is developing.

The specialist schools, with close links to industry and commerce and concentrating on vocational education, will be similar to their Realschuele counterparts in Germany.

"I see them providing choice in the system, as innovative schools developing and trying new learning methods," he explained.

"I see them developing higher quality technology resources and perhaps using their resources on a community-wide basis."

In a final reminder that both partners in what was once a bitter quarrel are now eager to kiss and make up, Sir Cyril, former deputy leader of the Tory group on the Greater London Council and midwife to the new colleges under Mrs Thatcher's iron hand back in the 1980s, added: "I don't think it's a good idea for schools to have out-and-out competition between each other. Everybody's trying to raise standards, after all."

Graham Lane, education chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, threw a little more light on Labour's policy. Local authorities will be given overall control of admissions policies in all the schools in their areas while stopping short of further powers. "We look forward to welcoming the grant-maintained and voluntary aided schools and the CTCs into the community so that we can work with them to improve education for all," he said.

How that will work in reality remains to be seen, and the worry over admissions policies - the key to any "family of schools" set-up, was raised from the floor.

But there will be no turning the clock back to the old days of overbearing, bureaucratic councils, Mr Blunkett was keen to stress.

Choice and diversity, once the watchwords of the Thatcherite educational revolution, are now inscribed in New Labour's mission statement. "We can't go back to a draconian 'you will do as we say' system," he told the conference.

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