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Place where horses are sent to the courses

ON the edge of London - the border with Hertfordshire lies just 600 yards away - Capel College is the capital's only specialist FE institution offering land-based studies ranging from landscape gardening to equine management.

Principal Steve Dowbiggin's welcome for Mr Blunkett's initiative has a caveat: there must be proper regional planning.

"Conceptually it is brilliant," he said. "But there will need to be a clear definition from the Learning and Skills Council about which areas you focus on, and for a relationship with all relevant agencies including the employment service. The regional development agencies would be an ideal forum."

Capel is a mature example of an institution left to fend for itself in the market place. In the late 1980s, Enfield Council was unimpressed by the fact that more than 80 per cent of Capel students came from outside the borough.

"We had to counter that by going our own way. We set up a charitable trust though that was superseded by what happened after incorporation in 1993," said Mr Dowbiggin.

Such is the demand for its courses that Capel has expanded across London, establishing centres to the west at Gunnersbury, to the east at Upminster and smaller "outreach centres" at Islington and Dagenham. Meanwhile, students trek considerable distances to Capel itself, and some last the course better than others.

Other colleges should take note. "For people travelling an hour each way or having t make three changes, enthusiasm drops off," said Mr Dowbiggin. "So we decided to open up across London."

With public transport poor in north London, Capel offers a free bus service from Tottenham Hale tube station. Capel also goes to the satellite centres, for instance, sending its Clydesdale horses to those studying equine care.

While optimistic about his relationship with his new local LSC executive, Mr Dowbiggin would prefer Capel to have pan-London funding. He sees the college as a resource for the capital.

"There needs to be regional planning when it comes to establishing specialist colleges," he says.

One message from Capel is that if industry likes what you're doing, help and funding will roll in. The college generates income from sources including 80,000 visitors last year to the gardens. Gardening Which? conducts its national trials in the grounds. There are also links with specialist trading associations, and financial backing from horticultural companies.

Mr Dowbiggin is protective of the fact that Capel is the only FE college with heavy horses and one of only two offering saddlery courses. "Some things are so minority that you should be addressing how to do them nationally," he said.

"It would be disastrous if lots of other places suddenly started offering substandard saddlery courses across the regions. There might be a role here for UK Skills and, for some things, a need for just one centre."

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