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'Just don't let it get watered down'

Joseph Lee finds an FE college which already offers courses ... a la Tomlinson -and has done so for a decade

Ten years ago, Chichester college opened up courses for 14-year-olds to try to ensure disaffected youngsters ended their education with at least some qualifications.

Vocational subjects became so popular that now 600 pupils from 40 schools spend part of their timetable at the further education college in West Sussex, learning everything from car repairs to hairdressing.

They are not restricted to those who have given up on academic education, as some pupils take several GCSEs along with a practical, work-based subject.

This is exactly the collaboration that Mike Tomlinson wants to see spread across the country to make the curriculum more relevant and tackle the "scandal" of the high drop-out rate at 16.

John Bates, vice-principal, said: "People who wouldn't have got any qualifications at all were suddenly picking up all sorts of things when education was in a more relevant environment.

"We became inundated with applications, not just from young people who were less academic, but from people who were doing a good bunch of GCSEs."

From an intake largely made up of students at risk of dropping out of full-time education, 70 per cent now stay on beyond 16.

But it is obvious why the idea has not spread further. Chichester college has had to subsidise the pupils' lessons using cash from foreign students'

fees and commercial activities. "If you don't take that first step, nothing changes," Mr Bates said.

That will change soon, the college hopes, with funding following students wherever they study.

In the future, the college also hopes to take some lessons to schools, with lecturers running courses in specialist schools.

Mr Bates said: "This is the biggest development in 50 years, as long as it doesn't get watered down by whatever party is in power over the next 10 years.

"It's a bit of a gauntlet thrown down to people like us. It's up to us to show it works."

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