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Flying into the next century;FE Focus

Colleges in Greenwich are doing their bit to prepare for the Millennium. Elaine Carlton and Ian Nash report

Colleges in London's Thames Gateway region are joining forces in an ambitious drive to ensure their students benefit from the area's regeneration project and schemes such as the Millennium Dome.

Ten further education colleges and one sixth-form college have formed the Thames Gateway Further Education Consortium. They plan to work together to bring more jobs to the region.

The consortium is the third major announcement in as many weeks from groups of colleges looking at new approaches to co-operation and collaboration. Five Birmingham colleges have formed the country's first US-style community college, with a federal structure to cut administration costs and unnecessary competition between courses.

Five Manchester colleges have formed a consortium to improve regional planning and widen participation among traditionally excluded groups such as ethnic minorities.

The drive towards closer collaboration is in line with new Labour thinking. Baroness Blackstone, further and higher education minister, last month gave pound;10 million to set up a new FE collaboration fund.

Lady Blackstone exhorted college managers at the annual conference of the Further Education Funding Council to consider closer collaboration and co-operation. The theme is developed further with the Lifelong Learning Green Paper this week urging greater local and regional planning, drawing in schools and universities.

In a unique bid to rid colleges of the competition and suspicion they have felt for each other in the past, the 11 colleges in the Thames Gateway Consortium are planning to pool their resources and share expertise.

Geoff Pine, principal of Woolwich College who is heading the project, said: "Often when businesses want to establish themselves in the area we realise that there is a mismatch of skills between what they want and what we can provide. This consortium will make a concerted effort to ensure that all our students are best prepared to take advantage of any new opportunities by sharing the skills we have among colleges.

"Two-and-a-half years ago I attended the launch of the Thames Gateway regeneration project and had a vision that some of the prosperous west-side of London could spread to the dirty east-side. I believe that education and training must be central to this transformation.

The 11 colleges are: Barking, Bexley, Havering, The Community College Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Thurrock, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest College, Woolwich and Christ the King Sixth Form College. They have total revenue budget of pound;148m and 135,000 students.

"As a consortium we represent a real force in economics and policy development. We will be liaising very closely with businesses and ensuring we teach the skills they need," he added.

One of the effects of the consortium's creation is a change in the colleges' attitude to each other.

When Mr Pine approached the local authority-funded Greenwich Labour and Construction organisation he was told it was looking for construction workers for the Dome.

Woolwich College had no construction training so he was unable to help but instead recommended Lewisham College to do the job.

"That is something I might not have done a year ago," he admitted.

The consortium plans to set up a united web site which will lay out all the training and education on offer at the 11 colleges concentrating particularly on engineering, construction, business and administration.

There is still some uncertainty which is playing on the minds of the colleges however. There are still doubts over whether the high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link will go through east London, which could affect the area's regeneration and cut training and employment opportunities.

While they await this news the colleges are planning to capitalise on other new opportunities including the Jubilee Line Extension, the Docklands Light Railway and the Millennium Dome.

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