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If you thought FE cornered alternative degrees market...

. think again, as secondary becomes first to offer higher education

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. think again, as secondary becomes first to offer higher education

A Hull school has made history by becoming the first state secondary in the country to offer degree-level qualifications.

Today, the dozen-strong first cohort of students arrive at the country's newest - and smallest - higher education institution: South Holderness Technology College in Preston, near Hull.

While currently only universities and some FE colleges have degree- awarding powers, the 11-18 school has developed a higher national certificate (HNC) and higher national diploma (HND) in business, in partnership with exam board Edexcel.

The school is charging tuition fees of pound;4,500 per year for the level 5 qualification, equivalent to the first two years of an honours degree. Students will have the option of topping up their HND to a full degree elsewhere.

Neil Pinder, the school's director of post-16 education, believes it could transform the lives of young people in an impoverished pocket of East Yorkshire. "It's pretty grim in the Hull area at the moment. The number of business start-ups here is near the bottom of the list (nationally), and we have the highest number of people on unemployment benefits," he said.

"With all the doom and gloom in the region, we wanted to do something to improve the life chances of our students. We're really excited about offering degrees; we felt that it was going to maximise students' opportunities at a time when there aren't many opportunities out there."

While some independent schools and the state-funded, selective BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology have previously made forays into the foundation degree market, an Edexcel spokesman said that South Holderness is the first state school to offer a BTEC HND, previously only available in universities and FE colleges.

Lydia Tenevan, 18, is one of the first group of students, having decided to stay on at the school after completing three A levels there. "The new course looked better than the university courses, and the fees for university are too expensive," she said.

Students who have taken BTEC qualifications instead of A levels have had particular difficulty in obtaining university places, the school has found.

"It was very difficult for them to have a number of options in higher education, in comparison to those doing A levels," Mr Pinder said. "We also found that students enjoyed the experience here and were quite reluctant to leave."

With no FE colleges in the school's immediate vicinity, it decided to take action itself. While the students will mostly be taught by existing staff who have received specialist training, one new lecturer has been employed.

If the scheme proves popular, the school will be looking to offer foundation degrees in human resources and business law next year, and is considering starting a foundation degree in art.

It is working closely with businesses in nearby Enterprise Zones - areas where the government is offering financial and other support to encourage job creation - and is hoping to secure sponsorship for its next cohort of students to reduce their tuition fees.

Students are already eligible to take out loans, and the school is considering allowing applications from other schools and colleges via Ucas. In the long term, Mr Pinder hopes that other schools in the region will follow South Holderness' lead. "I can't believe we are the only school that has the need to do this," he said.

He also paid tribute to Edexcel for its support, after the school's proposal was turned down by several universities and colleges. "We are small fry. The University of Hull felt they had already done their bit as far as higher education in FE is concerned. We were slightly cut adrift, so we had to find a new solution."

The solution has also involved creating what Mr Pinder describes as a "one-room higher education institution" on the school site, with a swipe card and thumb print scan needed to gain access to the dedicated facility.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said his members would welcome the new competition. "We can't be there arguing for more diversity in higher education, and saying it can only be for FE colleges," he said.

However, he sounded a note of caution, saying: "I would be asking whether they have staff of the appropriate quality to ensure students have a high- quality experience, and that it doesn't represent a diversion from (the school's) main effort."

We're really excited about offering degrees; we felt that it was going to maximise students' opportunities


Student numbers at South Holderness Technology College:

1,900 in total

300 in the sixth form

12 taking HNCs and HNDs.

Original headline: If you thought FE had cornered the market on alternative degrees.

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