S grade slot for job skills

New "skills for work" courses for third and fourth-year pupils are to be piloted next year under the Executive's flagship policy on school-college links.

An interim progress report says these courses, to be offered in colleges, would be a firm part of the Standard grade menu. They would lead to a national certificate which could also be available at Access and Higher levels.

"These courses will be integral to the school curriculum," the Executive's report states. "They will not stand alone. Nor will they be an add-on."

The report acknowledges, however, that success will depend on how pupils, employers and the educational community come to regard them, as well as on how they improve job and career prospects.

In a clear signal that the courses are not to be seen as a narrow vocational route for "non-academic" pupils, the pilots are to cover a broad spectrum - financial services, the early years, construction and leisure.

"We want all young people to have the chance to reach their full potential and that means we must offer a diverse range of subjects to meet their individual needs," Peter Peacock, Education Minister, commented.

But, in a carefully worded passage, the Executive's report suggests that this entitlement will not be guaranteed. "We expect pupils of all abilities in S3 and above to be able to be considered for college courses," it states. "That said, given that there is a limit on capacity, we expect that due regard is paid to those pupils for whom collaboration is especially beneficial in activities that particularly broaden pupils' educational experiences and enhance their life chances."

The Executive confirmed that the initiative would be fully up and running from the 2005-06 session. By then it expects every special and secondary school in the country to have "effective working partnerships" with at least one FE college (except Newbattle Abbey College in Dalkeith because it is an adult residential college).

This significant broadening of pupils' vocational horizons will have to proceed carefully, the Association of Scottish Colleges warns. "This is about building on the success of what has been developed locally over a number of years," Tom Kelly, its chief executive, says. "But trying to bring a consistent national approach to this raises a number of technical and funding problems - which we are happy to help address.

"The key principle is that these arrangements should be appropriate and negotiated locally. What's appropriate in the Borders won't be appropriate for Lanarkshire."

Mr Kelly made clear that those pupils opting for college courses should have vocational interests. "It should not be a case of academic students on one hand or disruptive pupils and those with learning difficulties on the other," he said.

The Executive's paper stated that a key issue is whether the pupil would be able to cope with the level and kind of learning that college provides.

Echoing Mr Kelly, it states: "It should be a positive choice to access specialist provision in further education colleges - it should not be regarded as opting out of school for young people with additional support needs or disaffected or disengaged pupils."

Ministers have still to sort out one of the thorniest problems if closer school-college links are to become a reality - money. The Executive is pledged to establish "long-term, clear and stable funding arrangements in place of the current anomalous funding mechanism that disadvantages further education colleges in providing courses to school pupils" (because no fees are charged).

The FE funding council and its successor will none the less be responsible for funding collaboration. But education authorities will have overall responsibility for school-age pupils' learning, wherever it is taking place.

The competence of college staff to teach school pupils is another issue that the Executive is pledged to investigate, through a working group chaired by Professor David Raffe of Edinburgh University.

Despite the significant extension of colleges' role, the Executive accepts that this will remain a minority activity and they must remain "as centres of voluntary learning for adults". School-college collaboration accounts for only 9 per cent of the support the FE funding council provides.

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