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Cumbria goes the extra mile

"If you can make the new diploma work in Cumbria, you can make it work anywhere."

This is what a senior government official is believed to have said of the challenge of realising Labour's vision of vocational learning in one of England's most sparsely populated areas.

Cumbria has been chosen as one of 39 councils to pioneer the new qualifications from September. But the county's geography makes this a serious undertaking.

Adrienne Carmichael, a senior adviser on 14-19 strategy for Cumbria council, said that from 2008, the county will make all five of the first diplomas available to all its 14 to 19-year-olds.

Cumbrian colleges are already offering part-time vocational courses for around 4,000 14 to 16-year-olds every year. For the diploma, secondaries are being grouped with colleges in five "clusters".

Ms Carmichael said that the distances involved - one school is 23 miles from the nearest college - meant in many cases it would not be possible for pupils to switch between school and further education lessons in a single day.

So the council has been trying out radical alternatives. For example, instead of spending one day a week in college, some pupils are already doing engineering courses in two-week blocks at Barrow college, Barrow-in-Furness.

The council will also arrange for schools to be visited by peripatetic lecturers. One, Simon Hansen, a chef, has been working with schools for two years.

Mr Hansen, who has worked at London's Savoy hotel, has introduced GCSE catering courses at nine Cumbrian comprehensives.

Mr Hansen, who this week was invigilating at Kirkbie Kendal school as pupils rustled up pasta dishes for their GCSE practicals, said: "Catering is the biggest employer in this area, where there is a shortage of 900 chefs. The pupils love these courses, because they can see their relevance."

Ms Carmichael said the bill to introduce the diplomas across the county would be pound;1.5 million a year. She said that Cumbria would receive Pounds 700,000 for 14-19 work next year. This would be delivered directly to schools. Just over pound;300,000 was being made available directly from the Government and through the Learning and Skills Council. However, this still left a shortfall of nearly pound;500,000. She said: "The biggest problem will be transport and the patching together of various bits of short-term grant is not satisfactory. But the Government is looking into this and I'm trying to stay optimistic."

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