If efforts to bridge the academic-vocational divide could be described in terms of a quest, then its holy grail would be a mutually beneficial relationship between school, college and employer. A unique project in the North East of England, which sets out to address the skills gap faced by industry, may succeed in creating such a collaboration.
This September in South Tyneside, a leading FE college and an outstanding-rated school, with the backing of several major employers, will open a joint venture specialising in engineering, advanced manufacturing and computer science.
Career College North East will provide the best of academic and vocational education to young people aged 14-19, its founders say, offering a clear line of sight to a career. They hope the college will illustrate how the school and FE sectors can work together to provide innovative education pathways. Significantly, this is the first time a career college has partnered with a school in this way.
Strength in numbers
South Tyneside College will provide the vocational know-how, St Wilfrid's RC College will deliver the academic expertise, and employers including Siemens and Ford Aerospace will help to design and deliver the curriculum, as well as offering work experience opportunities to students.
"Each will play to their strengths to provide the best possible education for young people," says Ruth Gilbert, chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust. "The reason why this is special and distinct is that it doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel. It's collaboration in its best form, which plays to the strengths of the institutions. That's rare in a formal, long-term arrangement."
Alison Maynard, principal of South Tyneside College, says the idea of setting up a career college stemmed from a realisation that more needed to be done to address local skills gaps.
"We have an ageing population in the engineering and advanced manufacturing sectors," she explains. "Skills in those areas have declined to the point where we have had to bring in people from abroad.
"We are now in a situation where there's an upturn [in the economy] and we don't have the skills coming through. Companies are moving in, others are growing and they need those skills. You need to have a supply chain."
Indeed, as part of a government-sponsored City Deal to boost local growth, an international advanced manufacturing park will be opening on the college's doorstep, offering huge employment potential. But Maynard says the college was reluctant to launch the venture on its own, preferring to partner with a school to tap into its academic knowledge and experience of teaching younger pupils.
"We are a very strong FE college, but I personally don't have experience in pre-16 education," she says. "Having a school on board brings in that pre-16 experience and allows us to integrate academic education into the vocational curriculum.
"It will help students understand how academic subjects like maths and English are related to their future employment, and hopefully make them more employable."
St Wilfrid's heard about the college's plans and made contact. Headteacher Brendan Tapping says: "St Wilfrid's became involved with the career college following a conversation with South Tyneside College about the need to engage with employers and ensure that we meet the needs of business in areas identified as having a skills shortage."
Tapping believes students will benefit from an education that provides them with a range of transferable skills and qualifications that are attractive to employers, while the school will gain by continuing to develop the skills of its staff.
"We will deliver the core curriculum, with a focus on project-based learning to ensure students develop the skills employers require," he says.
To explain the concept to parents, a series of advisory group sessions led by employers were set up. "Parents are very cautious about what the concept is about," Maynard says. "It's a big step taking children out of school at 14 and putting them into a new entity. It's key that they have heard it from employers."
One of those employers is Ford Aerospace, which manufactures components for the aerospace, defence and related high-technology industries. Its chairman, Geoff Ford, says the new venture is "exactly what is needed".
"The skills shortage in the North East is a major issue, so to have the first career college in England focusing on those three subjects here in the North East is like music to our ears," he says. "You can't attract young people to these subjects at an early enough age, so having them at 14 is ideal for businesses like ours."
Gilbert says Career College North East will be judged not only on its qualification outcomes but also how far its students develop in their time at the college and their progression afterwards, whether they go on to higher education, an apprenticeship or employment.
Although she accepts the model wouldn't work for every career college, if it is successful, it could be copied elsewhere. "Too often in the past, we have seen competition in education when collaboration would have actually increased opportunity," she says. "But it has to feel natural. Collaboration has to bring the best possible expertise together for young people."
What is a career college?
Career colleges are a new breed of self-contained institution for 14- to 19-yearolds, housed within existing colleges, each with a specific industry specialism. They were established to take advantage of the government's decision to allow FE colleges to recruit at 14.
The Career Colleges Trust, which is overseeing the programme, says the aim is to increase the range of opportunities open to young people and to provide "accelerated vocationally focused programmes of study" alongside a core academic curriculum.
The body also intends to provide "clear progression routes" into higher education, apprenticeships, further education and work.
Students start at 14, combining core curriculum areas with vocational learning and hands-on projects. Subjects such as English, maths, science, languages and humanities are taught in the context of the chosen vocational specialism, to "bring these vital subjects to life".
So far, four career colleges have been set up, but the trust expects that up to 40 will open in the next few years.