Are specialist technology colleges an imaginative way to encourage schools to produce teenagers equipped for work in the 21st century or a "disgraceful misuse of public funds"?
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, decided last December to allow local authority schools to join their grant-maintained and voluntary- aided colleagues in being allowed to compete for the new technology college status. Successful applicants get more than Pounds 200,000 in extra money and equipment from the Government and private sponsors. The chance of this extra money has boosted applications. Since December, 112 schools have prepared bids and lined up sponsorship, but only 40 have managed to win Department for Education and Employment approval.
Inner-city councils and the City Technology Colleges Trust have come together to discuss where the specialist schools would fit in the educational map under a Labour government. But the talks have not killed off objections to the nature of the bidding process or the underlying unease brought about by suspicions that success in achieving technology college status has more to do with luck than need.
The application process involves preparing a three-year curriculum plan showing targets for improvement and evidence of a commitment to a "scientific and technological culture", and then securing promises from local industry to invest in the school to the tune of Pounds 100,000. If the bid is successful, this will be matched by Pounds 100,000 from the DFEE plus an annual top-up grant of Pounds 100 a pupil.
There are two main criticisms of the programme: first, that the notion of a "technology college" could distort the curriculum to the detriment of other subjects, and second, that the competition is a lottery in which public money is tied to the philanthropic whims of commerce.
The TES contacted nine schools that had been approved by the DFEE since December, and two that had been turned down. The successful schools were all anxious to stress, like Reddish Vale school (see right), that technology status would enhance the whole curriculum and that the technological and scientific emphasis would not detract from other subjects. Most saw it as a question of getting parents to understand this.
The CTC Trust is also keen to make this point. Cyril Taylor, the trust's director, said: "Technology colleges have nothing to do with the old technical school ethos. The idea that they are a throwback to the past, with boring narrowly-vocational subjects is nonsense."
Most of the successful local education authority schools and some of the voluntary-aided schools confessed that they had serious reservations about the equity of the bidding process but could not pass up the chance of securing money, equipment and expertise for their pupils. All said that attracting sponsors had been very time-consuming.
Some unsuccessful schools were bitter. The head of St Benet Biscop's RC school in Northumberland, Stanley Bryce, said: "If you look at where the technology colleges have gone, they are all in Conservative constituencies in this area. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but it makes me wonder about the political connotations behind this."
St Benet Biscop's has twice been rejected as a TC. The reason given by the DFEE, Mr Bryce says, was that one of the sponsors offering discounted equipment (20 per cent of the Pounds 100,000 may be in the form of discounts) had artificially inflated prices in the first place. The sponsor, he says, had been recommended by the CTC Trust, but was ruled ineligible by the DFEE."There was no question of our curriculum being unsuitable."
St Benet Biscop's takes pupils from a depressed area of closed pits and high unemployment. Mr Bryce says two technology colleges have been approved in the only Tory constituency in Northumberland, and another in Tynemouth, a Tory marginal. He said: "Technology status doesn't seem to have gone to those who need it most."
The director of education for Northumberland, Chris Tipple, said that schools like St Benet Biscop's were disadvantaged because of the lack of industry in recession-hit areas. He called the funding of technology colleges "a disgrace".
At the other rejected school, a county school that did not wish to be identified, the head said he had received a letter from a large computer company promising Pounds 20,000 in cash, but this had been rejected on the grounds that it implied an obligation to purchase equipment at a later date. "But other schools have submitted an identical promise from the same company in an identical letter and their bids have been accepted."
The CTC Trust has just changed its rules to allow the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to nominate two directors of education to the CTC Trust board. The AMA's education chair, Graham Lane, says the idea is to work with the CTC Trust in identifying schools suitable for the technology college scheme and to try to work out ways of expanding the programme on a more equitable basis in the future.
The AMA is hoping to arrange for David Blunkett, the shadow education spokesman, to meet the trust next month to hammer out Labour's policy on technology colleges.
The party has said that it had no objection in principle to specialist schools or to the idea of public money following private, but is looking at ways of ensuring distribution of funds according to need as well as ability.