Ian Nash on a Knowsley partnership that allows teenagers to combine school, college and work-based learning
Sir George Sweeney, head of the bureaucracy busting task force, has been asked to help mastermind a new government strategy to reform 14 to 19 education.
Knowsley college, where Sir George is principal, has been selected as a "pathfinder," following the launch of an initiative to give every school pupil a new choice of academic and vocational routes to higher education.
The Knowsley collegiate is a "merger" of interests on Merseyside involving Knowsley community college, 12 secondary schools, six private training providers, the local education authority and the Connexions careers service.
Part of a pound;2.2 million partnership across the borough, the collegiate is self-governing and self-financing. And it gains huge economies of scale by sharing training and support services, curriculum development and quality assurance schemes.
The initiative allows all 14 to 18-year-olds to mix and match education in school, college and the workplace. Choice will be greatly extended next year when a new vocational skills centre on the Kirby campus will cater for up to 1,000 pupils a week.
Sir George reckons his staff and managers have been ahead of the pack on almost every government initiative. The "community college" is already three colleges in one: Robey sixth-form college, the Skill and Enterprise college and the Adult and Community college.
The three colleges have similar freedoms and responsibilities to those of the collegiate and have grown to meet the needs of 700 16 to 19-year-olds, 800 youngsters seeking work-based learning and 7,000 adult returners.
The wider partnership has also helped demolish once entrenched hostilities among schools, colleges, the local education authority and industry, said Sir George. "Two years ago, everyone was at each other's throats. This is no longer so."
The spur for reform came less from the Government than from the need to boost the borough's fortunes and break the cycle of disaffection with education. One of the poorest areas in Europe, it is also bottom of the exam league table. Last year, 50 per cent of 16-year-olds achieved some qualifications, higher than Merseyside as a whole but poor compared with national averages.
David Booth, deputy director for work-based learning, said the opportunities to learn and work vanished overnight with the industrial decline of the 1980s. "In the mid-1970s, Kirby industrial estate employed 34,000.
"Now there are 9,000. Crafts have been replaced by call centres. At the peak, we had 40 per cent male unemployment."
But it was the first 14 to 19 area inspection under the Learning and Skills Council that really shook the schools and colleges, said Sir George. "At age 11, we are not far off national averages for achievement. Then, it begins to dive rapidly. The inspectors said there should be a post-14 strategy and we have taken them up on that.
"The collegiate helps us break down low esteem and do something more positive."
Much of the infrastructure was there. With fewer jobs and less training around, Knowsley community college became one of the top three providers of work-based learning in Merseyside, with an average 500 trainees at any one time and contracts with private industry worth pound;1.75m a year.
There were, however, historic social problems. "Merseyside is insular. People have a fierce sense of place. It's Kirby as opposed to Huyton, Liverpool not Halton. Outsiders find it unbelievable but the unwillingness of people to travel really hampers us."
The only answer was to extend what was already being developed in adult education and expand the number of learning centres - with the same high standards - until every 14-year-old has one on their doorstep.
This demanded a considerable sacrifice of autonomy by the schools and the colleges, with teachers, lecturers and support staff being far more flexible in what and were they taught.
Other gains from the Knowsley partnership include an "entitlement" curriculum for every adult learning in the workplace up to level 2 (GCSE).
The size and scale of Knowsley's adult and community education programme has also grown enormously. More that 7,000 students are catered for in 153 outreach centres and on work placements.
New learning shops are opening in the high streets, not just to sign people up for colleges, but to provide education and training on their doorstep.
Lyn Eaton, head of adult education, said: "All adults have an entitlement curriculum up to level 2 (GCSE grade A-C). When they have reached level 1, we follow them and encourage them to move on to the enterprise college. This provides a progression route starting with the shops."
The range of common services for the three colleges enables this to be done with a minimum of bureaucracy (as one might expect at Sir George's college). To monitor real progress of students, a pre-16 value-added system is at the pilot stage.
If the various strands of Knowsley's work succeeds, there will be no distinction between school and FE, said Sir George. "It will simply be a progression ladder from 14 to adult life, with opportunities to come and go at all stages."
What about the fear expressed by many in FE that the Government's ulterior motive is to separate adults from the 16 to 19 age group?
"I don't think so. To remove Robey sixth-form college from our control, they would have to slice out the middle and upper floors of our main building."