COLLEGE LEADERS are warning politicians not to reinvent the wheel when they are considering how to boost the nation's skills.
In a letter to all the political parties on skills academies, the Association of Scotland's Colleges insists that they should be seen "not as new institutions requiring new buildings, but as the next step in school-college partnerships which have been successfully taken forward since 2003".
The concept of skills academies for 14 to 18-year-olds is associated with Jack McConnell's plans as Labour leader to establish 100 of them throughout Scotland, at an initial cost of pound;15 million.
But whichever party emerges to lead the new Scottish Executive after this week, the skills agenda features in all their plans. The Liberal Democrats have lifted a commitment straight from the association's election manifesto to provide a 3 per cent year-on-year increase beyond the pound;18.8 million available next session to fund school-college partnerships.
And the SNP is pledged to expand school-college links so all pupils in S3-4 can experience vocational learning.
The Nationalists are also aiming to focus a skills strategy on "real, marketable skills and ensure the strategy is demand-led". The party wants to review the modern apprenticeship scheme so that the skills being taught match the gaps.
In a briefing circulated to the political parties, the association calls for flexibility, saying that "skills academies cannot be a cookie cutter solution rolled out across the country".
It adds: "A skills academy could be delivered in schools, colleges, businesses or in new builds. The key is to think innovatively regarding the local context, as locally derived and based solutions will have the greatest impact."
The association suggests skills would not need to be taught by teachers or lecturers: private trainers and experts from industry could also be involved - a proposal that is likely to draw a strong rebuke from the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
In an accompanying paper, Ray Harris, principal of Edinburgh's Telford College, says Skills for Work courses, which have taken vocational programmes to a broader audience of learners than is usual, are the way forward. They are nationally certificated, mirror occupational standards and broaden the educational experience for all students, he adds, and they could replace a Standard grade.
"My only hope is that this will not be a one-size-fits-all approach," he said.
"Variability will be needed to reflect regional and local needs and, who knows, this might in fact present an opportunity to link economic prosperity with the elimination of economic exclusion."
At an election hustings hosted by the ASC in Edinburgh last week, Allan Wilson, the former Deputy Minister for Lifelong Learning, made it clear that "skills, skills, skills" was Labour's successor to the Prime Minister's mantra of "education, education, education".
But Mr Wilson's emphasis on skills academies "to inspire disaffected young people" was seized on by Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokesperson in the last parliament, who said this focus would create a two-tier education system.
She also feared Labour's version of the academies would bypass the college sector. "They are a belated excuse for the failure to do anything over the past four years," she commented.
Derek Brownlee, the Conser-vative representative, said skills academies could be specialist, focusing on areas such as languages, as well as vocational. His party prefers a test run of a "city academy" in Glasgow spanning both approaches.
"What matters is what works," he said, "which is why we want to pilot it."