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Pilot selection prompts new row

The selection of schools to pilot new vocational courses for 14-year-olds has provoked a furious row between the Government and local education authorities, who say they were not consulted.

Almost 300 schools were invited to bid to pilot the new courses, which will be taught alongside the national curriculum. Grants of up to Pounds 10,000 each will be paid, 40 per cent of which must be met by the LEAs.

The LEAs insist that the list of schools invited was "wholly unrepresentative", neglecting 11-16 schools and metropolitan areas. Almost half of Suffolk's secondary schools are on the list, but not one from 26 London LEAs.

All those listed have previous experience of the General National Vocational Qualifications. But it is essential that a fair proportion should be "starting from scratch", if a balanced picture of the needs of all schools is to emerge, says the Association for Metropolitan Authorities.

The row is the latest of many to dog the introduction of vocational courses pre-16. It stems partly from deep-seated disagreements within the task-force set up to draft proposals which delayed final approval of the pilot. The rift was an ideological one between the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and National Council for Vocational Qualifications over the best type of exams.

Ministers approved the pilot, to avoid postponing the whole programme, but they were still unhappy with the over-complex assessment regime drawn up as a compromise.

Because of the delays, the Department for Education side-stepped the LEAs and asked vocational awarding bodies to select 90 schools each. Criteria for selection were drawn up by SCAA and NCVQ.

The awarding bodies vigorously defended their choice this week. A spokesman for the Business and Technology Education Council said: "We were asked to provide a cross-section of schools in terms of control - LEA, GM and CTCs - and geographical spread including 11 to 16 and 11 to 18 schools. Our area evaluators were involved in the selection."

But the DFE clearly made several tactical blunders. Letters telling LEAs of the selection were sent out the same day as letters to the schools. Department officials were due to meet today to try to settle the row with the authorities.

But the AMA was not optimistic. Alan Parker, AMA education officer, said: "We are paying for much of this pilot through the Grants for Education, Support and Training and we have the best information to ensure a balance of schools. "

Many local education authorities would now find themselves in a predicament, having to divert GEST money committed to other programmes, without having had any say. "They are already well ahead on getting their GEST money out. They will be a bit miffed about it," he added.

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