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Desperate search for skills sponsors

An appeal for entrepreneurs to invest in the Government's new national skills academies will be launched as the project struggles to meet its deadlines.

Ministers are committed to opening four of the vocational colleges for 16 to 19-year-olds by September next year.

But the Department for Education and Skills admits it has so far secured only one sponsor: retail billionaire and Monaco resident Philip Green, who announced his investment last September.

No other firms have expressed an interest, and a prospectus to encourage them to invest will be published next week.

Each of the four academies will need at least pound;10 million in sponsorship and the Government has just 12 months to raise the cash, design and build them, and recruit students.

Arcadia, Mr Green's company which owns the Topshop and BHS store chains, this week confirmed that the construction of the pound;20m Fashion Retail Academy has been delayed.

The six-storey building off Oxford Street in central London, leased at a cost of about pound;1m a year, will not be ready until January.

Instead, the first students will begin their courses in the autumn at the London College of Fashion, a partner in the academy.

There have so far been 166 applicants for the initial 60 places.

Within four years, the academy will take 400 students on its custom-built courses: diplomas in fashion retail at level 2 and 3, designed for future store supervisors and managers respectively.

Students will spend 60 per cent of their time in college and the rest on work experience with firms including Arcadia, Next, and Marks Spencer.

In order to reach the number of students it needs to break even, the academy also plans to offer short courses and adult education.

The start-up costs were met equally by Arcadia and the Government, while running costs will come from public funds and donations by retailers.

Plans to create 12 skills academies by 2008 were announced in February.

They will be national centres of excellence for vocational training, meeting employer demands for skills.

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