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'Excellence' venture welcomed

David Blunkett's vision of specialist colleges has received a general thumbs up from principals, although some have reservations. Andrew Mourant reports

COLLEGE principals have broadly welcomed David Blunkett's call for their institutions to become centres of vocational excellence. But the heads of tertiary colleges do have some qualms that the development would be at the expense of other specialities.

Richard Atkins, principal at Yeovil, said: "The Blunkett document could sound as if tertiaries and vocational centres are two different institutions," he said. Tertiary principals are keen that they should have their distinctive features recognised, he said.

Mr Atkins wants Yeovil to retain both its focus as provider of post-16 education, with improving A-level results, and its strength as a vocational centre, where the emphasis on engineering reflects the needs of the town's major employer, helicopter manufacturer GKN Westland.

His anxieties are reflected by Keith Elliott, principal at Swansea, an expanded tertiary college with a centre of excellence for computer network and call-centre training. "We should not create separate institutions," he said.

Richard Atkins believes the new drive towards vocational excellence should not jeopardise Yeovil's status as a centre for work-based training.

"We provide this for about 400 people and I wouldn't want to see that endangered. In fact I would see it being enhanced," he said.

The future of work-based training will be exercising the minds of the other 220 college principals involved. The Department for Education and Employment is being non-committal.

"We aren't being prescriptive about what will happen - that is up to the Learning and Skills Council," said a spokesman.

"Existing collegs that already have a work-base training specialism will probably be regarded by the council as a valuable part of training in the area. But I don't think we can say what will happen to a whole range of colleges."

Mr Blunkett wants colleges to work with National Training Organisations, Regional Development Agencies, and the Small Business Service.

His call for industry involvement is in line with Confederation of British Industry thinking. "We have strengthened links with colleges and become successfully involved with the LSC," a spokeswoman said.

The path beaten by South Nottingham College, already a centre of excellence in print and photography, could inspire others. This has been achieved in collaboration with the city council, training companies and employers such as Boots, Apple, Fuji and Carlton.

"We started working with similar providers in FE and HE around the country," said principal Ahmed Choonara. "NTOs have an important role in supporting colleges and co-ordinating the needs of the economy."

Agencies will have to pull together if 50 per cent of colleges are to achieve specialist status over the next four years.

Meanwhile, Mr Choonara would like some of the new money to increase lecturers' pay - as would John Homewood who chairs the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET). "If the conditions of service are poor, then people's professionalism is never recognised," said Mr Homewood, who lectures at the University of the West of England. All at sea: Suzanne Simpkins was among students from Hull colleges who were invited on board the Sail Training Association's new schooner 'The Stavros Niarchos' to help create a figureheard for it. The winning design will be carved by local sculptor Howard Boyd SAM ATKINS

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