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Long, hard look at college links

Links between schools and FE colleges are the subject of what the Scottish Executive is billing as "a major consultation exercise" to be launched next month.

The "fundamental review" was announced on Tuesday by Jim Wallace, Deputy First Minister and Lifelong Learning Minister, at a conference in Edinburgh on further and higher education.

Mr Wallace did not reveal any details but developments have been expected since the lifelong learning strategy was unveiled. Ministers' response to the national education debate called for closer collaboration between schools and colleges, including joint curriculum planning.

The move features in the coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and vocational education at 14-plus was supported by all the main parties in this year's election.

In his speech, Mr Wallace said he expected colleges to play their part in giving pupils access to vocational learning and enterprise experiences. "We all have a stake to do all we can to equip our young people with the right skills, knowledge and attitude to prepare them for life, both in society in general and in the workplace."

The news will receive a mixed response. Some FE staff, north and south of the border, have complained that schools are using colleges as "dumping grounds" for disaffected learners who then cause discipline problems.

Both lecturer and teacher members of the Educational Institute of Scotland voted at their annual conferences this year to insist that colleges are properly staffed and funded before taking on pupils.

The Executive points out that the lifelong learning strategy commits it to "develop a joint schools FE strategy and implementation plan, including a review of funding mechanisms".

Jewel and Esk Valley College in the Lothians took in 3,000 pupils from 27 schools in three authorities last session. But this attracted the same funding as 15 students on a full-time higher national diploma.

The college, along with Stevenson and West Lothian colleges, was forced to draw up contracts stipulating that youngsters would be sent back at the first sign of trouble. The three colleges no longer accept S3 pupils and very few from S4.

Howard McKenzie, principal of Jewel and Esk Valley, said behaviour this year has been "abysmal", although the contracts have allowed the college to manage the consequences better. "I accept that colleges can have a terrific effect on young people and that it is a good thing. But we have got to ensure that in the process we don't damage a whole lot of other terrific things."

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