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Funding changes spark fear for standards

INDUSTRIES with the toughest standards of vocational training could find their courses are the first to go as college funding is increasingly linked to student pass rates.

It is expected that the achievement-related aspect of college finance will be increased next year from 7 to 10 per cent as the Learning and Skills Council attempts to reform funding.

"This will make courses with low achievement rates less viable for colleges to run," said John Brennan, of the Association of Colleges. "Under changes which are happening next year, about 10 per cent will be based on achievement, so this factor will become more acute."

One industry which is sticking to its guns on standards is journalism. The National Council for the Training of Journalists believes colleges should be rewarded for quality teaching, not for laying on courses which are easy to pass.

Entrants are required to study newspaper practice, media law, shorthand, and public affairs, including the workings of local and national government, before they start as a trainee on a local newspaper.

A final exam is taken at the end of their training period on the newspaper, typically after two years, although relatively poor pay and sometimes inadequate on-the-job training leads to many moving on before qualifying.

"The fact that it is a hard course is bad news for the colleges because of the way they are funded, but we don't intend to drop our standards," said Sally Mellis, acting chief executive of the NCTJ.

"The disciplines which we include are required in the industry. At the same time, we take the view that students should get credit for passing the individual parts separately and we want the LSC to recognise that. It is difficult, for instance, to start shorthand from scratch and have 100 words a minute after a 20-week course."

Mr Brennan sees no reason why FE, if it gets the resources it needs, cannot continue to meet the industry's needs, regardless of whether the students have graduated from university.

Some companies, though, have already voted with their feet by taking training in-house, says Anthony Longden, editor in chief of West London and Buckinghamshire Newspapers, which is part of Trinity Mirror and includes the weekly Uxbridge Gazette.

The key, he says, is picking the right people and being prepared to pay their costs, including living expenses, while they are away from home. Regardless of the financial benefits which there may be for colleges, he says, lowering standards could be a disaster for local papers.

"Few jobs place greater responsibility on the trainee than journalism," he says. "We have junior reporters standing up in front of magistrates challenging court orders on the basis of their knowledge of the law.

"You either know that stuff or you don't. If you don't know it, we miss stories. These are the skills that count."

Steve Hook

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