Proposals for 14 to 16-year-olds herald a new era in the educational relationship. Steve Hook reports
THE GOVERNMENT's plans for post-14 education will go some way to reversing the effects of incorporation of colleges 10 years ago.
Closer cooperation with secondary schools will see a more holistic approach, bringing them closer than they were when local education authorities ran colleges.
Many principals' plans for post-14 vocational training were already well underway before the Government published its proposals this week.
Knowsley in Merseyside is one of the 25 pathfinder areas highlighted in the Department for Education and Skills' document 14-19: Opportunity and excellence.
The college established its programme ahead of the Government's proposals.
It has already linked up with secondary schools across the borough in an agreement to operate in effect as a single institution for 14 to 16-year-olds.
Each pathfinder is a test bed to see how easy it is in practice for institutions to pool their thinking on curriculum planning.
Knowsley is characterised by a relatively strong reliance on manufacturing industry, which makes up 20 per cent of the local economy compared with 10 per cent nationally.
While there has been a decline in some of these industries, the skills remain in demand and the college has invested heavily in machinery and new technology for vocational training.
A pound;2.7 million 14 to 16 centre, supported with pound;1m from the local learning and skills council, is being built at the college, which anticipates about 400 pupils a year will use the facilities.
Specialisms include construction, which is volatile in recession, and hairdressing, which may produce more qualified people than are needed. But Sir George Sweeney, principal of Knowsley College, is a firm believer that the generic skills which are acquired on these courses make young people more employable. They also help to engage them in learning in a way which, in many cases, schools have failed to do.
He rejects the notion that the scheme is about farming out pupils who have been failed by schools. "It's not about just dumping people on colleges.
That's bullshit. I don't like that kind of cynicism," he said.
"The Government has substantially increased spending on schools and these people will remain at school for most of the week. But with only 28 per cent in this area getting five or more GCSEs, you need to do something else."
With the schools and colleges on board, the next task is to sell the idea to pupils at 14.
In Opportunity and excellence, the DfES says: "The Connexions service, which will be rolled out nationally by April 2003, is well placed to provide advice and guidance to those who choose a non-traditional route, where a broader knowledge of the range of options available outside the school is needed."
The pathfinder scheme, initially launched with pound;10m, is being boosted with a further pound;25m to be split between the DfES and the Learning and Skills Council.
An LSC spokesman said: "There are already a number of excellent examples of LEAs and local LSCs working closely together and leading initiatives to raise levels of participation and achievement in their local areas.
"LSC will work with its national partners to take forward this agenda."
The DfES has promised the 14 to 19 system will not impose a single model on the whole country. Instead, it says, collaboration between schools and colleges, and the content of vocational courses, will reflect the local economy.
This means close links with business will become increasingly important.