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Colleges encouraged to take special route

DAVID Blunkett's call for half of all colleges by 2004-05 to become specialist vocational centres is a natural extension of what he has achieved in schools.

Only one week after the publication of this year's league tables showed that specialist schools were leading the way in GCSE results, it is no wonder that the minister wants to apply the same policy to the post-16 sector.

More than a quarter of state schools in the Government's most-improved list were specialist. Improvements in specialist schools have been almost 50 per cent better since 1997 than in other state schools, Mr Blunkett has claimed.

And the sector has burgeoned. Specialisation is the Government's tool for modernising the education system. By 2004, Tony Blair wants 1,000 schools - about one quarter of all secondaries - to specialise in the arts, languages, sport or technology.

Mr Blunkett wants colleges to build on the start they have made. But the emphasis for them will be on meting the skills needs of business.

The extra money Mr Blunkett is to provide is vital. Recent research showed that many schools applied for specialist status for the extra funding, rather than to raise standards. They get a pound;100,000 grant, and a promise of pound;100 per pupil per year, for three years, if they raise pound;100,000 in private sponsorship.

Colleges are already closely involved with business - in winning contracts and meeting economic and community needs - and this aspect of the policy will not faze them. Nor are they novices when it comes to seeking sponsorship.

Nevertheless there is a general fear that a two-tier sector would be the result, with some colleges leaving poorer relations behind. And specialisation might not be the right solution for some institutions, having to cater for disparate groups of learners over a wide area.

Inevitably the policy would foster partnership and collaboration, another of the Government's aims.

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