Mark Whitehead reports on how colleges in south London are looking forward to turn of the century celebrations. The Millennium Commission's decision to hold the national celebrations for the year 2000 in Greenwich, announced this week, is good news for colleges in the area. They are gearing up to meet the demand for skills which will be generated by the multi-million pound investment in the huge exhibition planned for the banks of the Thames in south London.
Geoff Pine, principal of Woolwich College, says: "It's tremendous news. We've been working towards this for a long time so that we can provide local people with everything they will need to move into the jobs created by the celebrations."
Two years ago the college started an advanced general national vocational education travel and tourism course and is now opening a new training centre in Greenwich, near the site of the exhibition area. It has already started expanding numbers of students - 30 per cent in the last two years to a total of around 5,000 now - and hopes to go on growing to about 7,500 by the year 2000. Travel and tourism, leisure and other subject areas such as construction and computer skills will be a major part of the expansion.
The college has linked with other educational institutions and business organisations in the area to form Opportunities 2000 which will mount training programmes aimed at local people and businesses in the summer months every year until the celebrations.
The college is in the heart of what was once a thriving industrial community next to the Royal Arsenal, the huge munitions factory which stretched along the banks of the Thames. Now the Arsenal is closed, most of the engineering firms have left the area, and unemployment is high.
But Mike Rowe, who teaches engineering at the college and is its schools liaison officer, is hoping the millennium will bring new hope to the area. "The college grew up almost as a part of the Arsenal," he says. "In its heyday they sent hundreds of apprentices here every year. They made everything from bombs and bullets to tanks in there, so there was a huge demand for engineering skills."
The millennium celebrations will create an estimated 10,000 jobs - initially in construction, then in all aspects of leisure and tourism. To help make sure local people were able to make the most of the educational opportunities on offer, Woolwich College last year linked up with a local school, Thamesmead Community College, about five miles away going out of town towards Kent.
Among those to benefit from the partnership so far are 17-year-old Craig Ingram, now looking forward to a career in engineering. Two years ago he had no idea what he wanted to do when he left school. All that changed when Mr Rowe gave a talk at Thamesmead. Then the "technology roadshow," staged by the college, filled the school hall with equipment. "There was a machine with a pneumatic pump and the lecturer showed me how it worked," Craig says. "That did it: I decided to go into engineering. A lot of people like me just leave school and go on the dole. They've got no confidence. But I didn't want to be on the dole all my life." He was told about the partnership and how, if he got the required minimum number of GCSEs, he was guaranteed a place at the college.
Now, after completing an intensive 18-week NVQ course in basic engineering at the college, he is on a work-experience placement at a local engineering firm learning all aspects of the trade.
The partnership agreement, adopted in July last year, sets out how the school and college will work together - firm progression routes will be established between the two institutions, the college will guarantee places to Thamesmead students who achieve the minimum level of qualifications required and resources will be shared.
The reality is that the school and college now enjoy a close co-operative relationship and pupils are aware of the opportunities at the college.
Jane Barnes, vice-principal of Thamesmead College, says: "Woolwich College is no longer an unfamiliar place. The students are used to going there. When they come to make their applications for a course, the college isn't some distant anonymous institution they know nothing about."
A typical pupil will start to reap the benefits of the partnership around the age of 14 when a lecturer from the college will give a careers talk. Over the next three years, there will be several opportunities to spend time at the college or speak to a tutor. They can shadow a student at the college if they want to find out about a particular course, or have a chat with one of the tutors. It is all aimed at providing advice tailored to individual requirements.
At Thamesmead, the partnership has meant the provision of adult education classes during the day and staff are hoping to expand co-operation between the two institutions. Already, in the first year of the link-up, the number of pupils from Thamesmead going to the college has increased. But the partnership can only go so far in the face of high unemployment. Of 40 students in the first contingent to go to the college from Thamesmead, about 12 still have no job.
But all that could soon change. Mike Rowe says: "We're looking to the future and the millennium could be a fantastic opportunity for the local community.
"The partnership at least means some young people will be better prepared to make the most of it."