In July, about a dozen colleges will become the first centres of vocational excellence, and from September they will develop their new model for the rest of the sector. Matthew Boulton College in Birmingham provides facilities for print apprentices, and in the coming months will apply to become one of these centres on account of its expertise in print, media and graphics.
The Government wants to see half of all colleges becoming centres of excellence by 2004-05 and has earmarked pound;100 million in extra funding. Key criteria for selection will include inspection grades, evidence of collaboration with employers, and recruitment, retention and achievement.
Matthew Boulton College works closely with firms such as the print media organisation Trinity Mirror Group, which runs foundation and advanced modern apprenticeships.
Fiona Pagett, head of the college's print, multimedia and graphics school, says: "We're looking for a significant expansion of young people coming into the industry. We want students to be able to progress through every part of the industry."
Richard Beamish, chief executive of the Print and Graphic Communication training organisation is uncertain how the initiative will turn out, or how many colleges that apply for excellence status in the industry will also wish to be excellence centres for other job sectors.
"The important thing is to be able to point employers towards good training providers," he says. "At the moment, we have limited criteria with which to do that. Providing national training organisations (NTOs) help devise the criteria, we can say with confidence that a college has excellence status."
This is not the first time the NTO has advised a UK college in this way. Last year, it was involved with a bid by Castle Reagh College in Belfast to achieve similar status under a scheme run by the Department of Further and Higher Education in Northern Ireland. Castle Reagh was recognised as a centre of excellence in telecommunications, for which it received pound;250,000, but it failed in its bid for such status in printing. The deputy principal, James Lee, says this was because printing had not been highlighted as a priority for the province's economy. "We wanted to flag up the fact that we felt there was a need in the area," he says.
The college did receive pound;150,000 for print facilities, but a centre of excellence kitemark would have provided greater kudos.
"It tells the world we have staff expertise that is recognised by the Government and industry as being at the leading edge," says Mr Lee.
Eight of Northern Ireland's 17 FE colleges have been recognised as having a centre of excellence. In Scotland, the Further Education Funding Council has no such such scheme, but the Welsh Assembly is waiting to finalise its economic development strategy before deciding on an initiative.
After the first wave of colleges, others will be able to bid for recognition. FE's national training organisation, Fento, and other training bodies will work with the new centres to develop staff training.
All centres of excellence will be expected to develop "an outstanding learning experience focused on meeting the needs of individuals and employers", and teaching staff will have to show high levels of commitment and knowledge in their subjects. Colleges must also have a high-quality learning environment and facilities including careers advice , ICT , and basic and key skills support.
Employers have welcomed the initiative but believe FE has a long way to go before it can provide what industry wants. "Our surveys of members show that their view of FE is that it's patchy," says Margaret Murray, head of he Confederation of British Industry's learning and skills group. "Our employment trends survey shows that over the past year they rated private training providers much more highly than further education. We need to rectify that. One area where the quality of FE provision is going to be crucial is basic skills, literacy and numeracy. These are the big weaknesses we've got to get right."
Lorna Unwin, professor of vocational education at Leicester University, says the initiative will return FE to its technical college roots. "This is how colleges grew up - rooted in their communities and linked to what employers wanted," she says. "But you'd have to look at teacher training in schools and colleges. There's hardly any attention paid to post-16 issues on teacher training courses, and certainly none paid to vocational."
College principals have welcomed the vocational excellence initiative, but with reservations. John Brennan, FE development director for the Association of Colleges, is concerned that some might pick up accolades for specialist areas while other colleges get none. "You're going to have a curious situation in which some institutions will see their reputations enhanced, but others left very much as second-class citizens. If the object is to boost vocational learning and use colleges as a stimulus to the economy, I think you can see a great outcome from the whole process."
"But if it's used as a Queen's Award to Industry, it can turn into a sterile exercise. And what's the money for? Is it to give you a reward because you've done very well? Or is it about boosting the resources so you can drag yourself up to an excellence level? I think that needs to be clarified and it hasn't been so far." One concern in England is that only FE colleges, and not private trainers, can apply for excellence status. Emta, the training organisation for engineering, says this overlooks work done by group training organisations.
Plans are under way to open a pound;30m centre of excellence in manufacturing and engineering near the Ford plant in Dagenham, north-east London. Training will be offered by local colleges. The centre was planned before the excellence scheme, but it could find itself promoted as an example of what can be achieved.
Alan Gray, director of engineering at Havering College, says: "We should be collaborating by putting the best of both colleges into things that we are both good at."
Training organisations will have to analyse skills needs in their sector and produce workforce development plans. Adrian Anderson, director of policy at the training organisations' National Council, believes some colleges must improve their level of programmes. "We wouldn't want a situation where colleges do what's easiest to deliver rather than what's needed by individuals and employers," he says.
The Gas Industry's training organisation has challenged colleges to come up with training ideas in response to the changing needs of the deregulated gas sector. Last year, three colleges won prizes in a competition run by the gas training organisation. Its chief executive, Tim Balcon, says that even these colleges will need to be nurtured before they can become centres of excellence.
No one knows yet how much colleges will receive. While they may be tempted to spend money on facilities, the Government has said that to be successful, centres of excellence must invest in staff, some of whom will need to update their skills.
Fento has been told to work with other training organisations and to suggest the best strategies for developing the teachers' skills.
Geoff Terry, Fento's chief executive, says: "You can go out and buy computers and other state-of-the-art equipment, but getting staff in place with the tools to teach will be a major challenge for the sector."