Row erupts over vocational training

Colleges oppose proposed 14-16 reforms. Ian Nash and Jon Slater report.

Chief inspector David Bell is on a collision course with colleges over suggested reforms to the way 14 to 16-year-olds are taught.

Mr Bell has called for a new type of vocational school to provide work-related teaching for teenagers.

While these schools should act in concert with schools and colleges they would have a specific brief to provide quality work-related studies.

However, colleges accuse Mr Bell of failing to fully understand government initiatives already in place to get more pupils onto college courses and workplace training from 14 as part of a wider shared school programme.

The crux of Mr Bell's argument, to be fleshed out in a major speech later this year, is that neither schools nor colleges are up to the task and that a new approach is needed. He would new cash to be targeted at such centres.

His views have angered college leaders who say the notion of such new distinctive centres is "naive" and based on false assumptions about the calibre of colleges.

John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "If Mr Bell is indeed seriously advocating the development of new 'vocational schools' for 14 to 16-year-olds then we can only be desperately disappointed at the naivety and lack of understanding of vocational learning this proposal betrays.

"Far from offering an imaginative and innovative approach to the learning needs of the 21st century, such a suggestion can only be seen as a throwback to the secondary modern era.

"The creation of new 'vocational' schools would run directly counter to the efforts made in recent times to widen participation and to create a more integrated curriculum and qualifications structure - most recently in the Tomlinson reforms. It would, moreover, fly in the face of Ofsted's own positive evaluation of the first year of the Increased Flexibility scheme and the Learning and Skills Development Agency's recent research on college and school co-operation at key stage 4. Colleges successfully help more than 120,000 14 to 16-year-olds expand their educational horizons."

Peter Pendle, chief executive of the Association for College Management, said: "We are loath to criticise Mr Bell's views without seeing more detail but they are symptomatic of a deeper problem. There still does not seem to be a coherent approach to all the 14 to 19 initiatives, Tomlinson's proposals, the inspection framework and so forth.

"Colleges and schools are slowly grasping the 14-16 nettle. It may be that it is not all moving as quickly as it should be but there is clearly no need for yet another initiative. What all the bigwigs, politicians, civil servants and quangos need to do is sit down and talk to us about what they want to do."

This is the second time in eight weeks that Mr Bell has crossed swords with colleges. Last term, he pilloried their failure rate as a "national disgrace", evoking the wrath of college employers and unions.

The Learning and Skills Council, noting his comments at the time, kept a neutral distance. Mark Haysome, chief executive, said there was much that was good in FE. Acknowledging some "poor and indifferent" provision, he added: "We have taken urgent action to tackle this."

Dr Brennan also said at the time that he was "shocked" at Mr Bell's remarks on college failures. He argued that success rates were twice that of schools if judged by the same criteria.

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