Billionaire establishes radical rival to schools

Jim McColl's college will provide vocational training from age 13

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One of Scotland's wealthiest men is about to realise his dream of opening a "unique" vocational alternative to school for pupils as young as 13, TESS can reveal.

The move marks one of the boldest departures from mainstream state education in the country and supporters say it could spark a wave of similar projects, sending pupils down vocational routes when they are barely into their teens.

Newlands Junior College, the brainchild of engineering tycoon Jim McColl, will open in Glasgow on 20 October with 30 students from S3. Another 30 will start in 2015. Each will be on a full scholarship and guaranteed an apprenticeship or a place in further education after two years at Newlands.

Mr McColl said he was keen to open more colleges in a few years' time, possibly in Dundee and another location in the east of Scotland.

Some six private investors, along with the Scottish government and Glasgow City Council, are understood to have pledged an annual sum of pound;100,000 each to the scheme. As "principal investor", Mr McColl will also be contributing to the college's running costs, expected to be pound;1 million a year for the first two years. He said that funding was in place for five years.

The college will be based in a refurbished office block on the former site of the billionaire's Clyde Union Pumps factory in Cathcart. Each of its students will have an individualised timetable and will study life skills as well as vocational and academic subjects. They will choose six of a possible nine timetable options, including engineering, administration, construction, hospitality, graphic design and sound engineering.

Determination and a knack for problem-solving will be essential attributes in students selected for the college, who may not have shone in school. "I believe passionately that there's a cohort of young people that really aren't suited to the academic style of education - 80 per cent of kids are, but 20 per cent switch off at 14," Mr McColl told TESS.

He himself left school at 16 with few qualifications, but went on to complete an apprenticeship, City and Guilds qualifications and an undergraduate and two master's degrees.

The entrepreneur, who built engineering company Clyde Blowers into a business with a turnover of more than pound;1 billion a year and who now has homes in Glasgow and Monaco, believes that Scotland is too fixated on academia.

"The strategy seems to be to get everybody into university, and if you don't then it's a failure - I don't think that should be the case," he said. "I think there's a need for a system which takes kids out in S3 or S4 and offers them an alternative path.

"These are people who are as talented as any other people in schools, it's just a different group. They have latent talent which perhaps hasn't been fully brought out by a traditional academic path."

Mr McColl added that England's academies approach - in which schools are funded directly by central government with no local authority involvement - was unsuitable. "The public-private approach is the way to go in Scotland," he said.

Iain White, former headteacher at Glasgow's Govan High School, has been appointed principal of the new college. Newlands is now advertising for four permanent teachers - of English, maths, ICT and science - to join him.

Mr White said the new institution marked a radically different approach in Scottish education, adding that the guarantee of an apprenticeship was part of its "unique" appeal. "We will genuinely be able to offer these young kids a fantastic opportunity that I believe, for most of them, will be life-changing," he said.

He said he expected other groups with a stake in education to follow Newlands closely and, if it was successful, for the model to "spring up in other areas".

In 2012, Glasgow education director Maureen McKenna advised Mr McColl that the city council could not provide the level of funding sought by the college. Newlands was asking for pound;13,500 per student, not including building charges, compared with pound;5,500 for a secondary pupil.

This week, a spokeswoman for the council said: "We are looking forward to seeing the curriculum plan and details of the new college."

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "Initiatives such as this can play a key role in strengthening the delivery of vocational training in Scotland and equip young people with the skills they need to meet the demands of the workplace."

She added that the importance of vocational training at secondary level was at the heart of recommendations made this week by the Wood Commission on Developing Scotland's Young Workforce.

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