No more courses for the horses?

Fury as Walsall college plans to axe saddle-making and force all its lecturers re-apply for their own jobs

One of the country's last courses in saddle-making is under threat in the town which led the world in the industry.

More than 10,000 people were employed in saddlery in Walsall at its height in 1900, and the town still makes saddles for the Royal family.

But next year, the City and Guilds saddlery course at Walsall college of art and technology could be axed if a curriculum review is implemented.

The review recommends the college's 470 teaching staff be made redundant and forced to reapply for their jobs on new contracts.

It also proposes axing A-levels, and access to higher education courses to focus on NVQs.

Kevin Buckley, branch chairman of the lecturers' union Natfhe, claimed the college had breached employment law by completing a review which would mean job losses before carrying out any consultation.

Mr Buckley said the college had told staff it was responding to the Foster review of further education, which argued that colleges' main purpose was to equip students with skills for employment.

"Most people didn't think the Foster report said anything like this and other colleges don't seem to have responded in the same way," he said. "We think the curriculum review is an excuse to change lecturers' contracts."

The new contracts will also mean staff have to work longer hours, with less paid time away from the classroom and more managerial responsibilities.

Walsall college declined to comment on the threatened saddlery course or the other proposed changes in the review.

Decisions about the changes have been put on hold while a consultation is held. "Following our recent curriculum review, we are now undergoing a consultation process with all staff. We therefore feel it would be inappropriate to comment at this time," a spokesman said.

Saddle-makers criticised the college's failure to ask them about their training needs. Rob Deavall, owner of the English Riding Saddle Company, based in the borough, has taken on apprentices from the college in the past.

He said: "I don't think it should be dropped. This industry has got such a history in this town, going back for so long, it should have its own training course. Nobody talked to us about it."

A decision to close the course would leave Capel Manor college in Enfield, north London, as the last in the UK to provide training in saddle-making.

Paul Bryant, head of the animal care and saddlery school at Capel Manor, said the industry was recovering from a slump following the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The course now attracts applicants from Europe and the US, as well as from all over the UK, he said. It has 24 students.

He said: "British saddlery has an international reputation. We were oversubscribed last year and we expect to be oversubscribed next year."

The college would have to find more resources to expand if it is to cater for students who would otherwise have studied in Walsall, he said.

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