When Leeds College of Technology opened the doors of its new centre of vocational excellence (Cove) for print media training, employers were queuing up to be linked with the project.
More than 70 employers and equipment suppliers turned up for the official launch earlier this term, two years after the centre was given pathfinder status by the Learning and Skills Council.
During the past two years, Cove fever seems to have broken out in FE colleges across the country. While the 16 pathfinders gained official status, a further 140 are at a "formative stage"and 52 more are producing development plans for the LSC so they can progress to the second stage of the process.
The attraction of becoming a Cove is fairly obvious: pound;500,000 from the Government over three years. But public money is not enough to keep the centres running on their own.
Fortunately for Leeds College of Technology, the employers that turned up for its launch brought more than messages of good luck. Between them, they have raised more than pound;1 million which, added to LSC funding, allowed Leeds to spend pound;1.4m on new equipment.
Although the print facilities were upgraded in 1997, gaining the Cove badge has allowed the college even greater investment. "We engaged with industry again and established what they wanted from us," says Dr Jim McWilliams, principal of Leeds College of Technology.
West Yorkshire is the second-largest centre for print in the UK after the South- east. Dr McWilliams, once an apprentice printworker himself, can scarcely contain his excitement at being able to help to upskill the local workforce.
"Printing is a hi-tech industry. It's vital to keep pace with change," he says. "We are providing strong skill development programmes for what is a very pro-active and supportive industry."
Enrolments have risen, partly because of online learning. Three years ago just 200 students were studying print; the figure is now more than 1,000.
Courses have been added in print finishing and print packaging.
"We are so busy it's unbelievable," says Dr McWilliams. "Cove is a big bonus for industry in West Yorkshire."
Originally, the Government allowed only colleges to become Coves - but the scheme was extended after an outcry by private trainers; now 18 non-FE providers are pathfinders or in a development stage.
Last year, Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State, announced that the target of 175 centres was being more than doubled - 400 are expected by 2006. Funding has been increased from pound;100m to pound;250m.
A college can become an excellence centre in more than one subject, but widespread duplication is discouraged. Greg Cejer, Cove programme manager at the LSC, says the best way colleges can do this is to join with other providers.
There are strong signs of co-operation. Bishop Burton and Warwickshire colleges have joined up to open a centre in equine training while Broxtowe and South East Derbyshire are developing a joint centre for travel and tourism.
About 40 partnership Coves are in the pipeline. As well as encouraging co-operation, local LSCs are striving to ensure there is a good regional distribution of centres in as many subjects as possible.
Just 9 per cent of Coves are in eastern England, compared with 14 per cent in the North-west. Nationally, engineering (22 per cent) has the best coverage while there are just a handful in areas such as sport and hair and beauty (see tables below, left). In the next few months, local LSCs must produce proposals to show what a national Cove network might look like by 2006.
"We are not accepting proposals that have not been encouraged by local LSCs," says Mr Cejer. "Speculative proposals are not going to be considered."
John Brennan, director of FE development at the Association of Colleges, says it remains to be seen whether the centres will attract students who might have gone to other colleges, or become beacons of excellence working closely with neighbouring providers.
"Hopefully, all colleges will have at least one Cove, but some may struggle to achieve that," he says.
Liz Aitken, who manages the Learning and Skills Development Agency's Cove support programme, says some colleges with such centres prefer not to link up with their neighbours but rather with institutions further away. It is too early to assess their effect on skills development, but the early signs are encouraging, with many staff motivated by placements in industry.
"Employers have started getting into Coves in a way they hadn't before," she says. "Considering there has been little national marketing, that's quite encouraging."
Leeds College of Technology is about to open an excellence centre in ICT with Wakefield College. But Dr McWilliams is sorry it can only gain recognition in certain subjects. "I would say that the college itself qualifies as a Cove in terms of manufacturing excellence," he says.
CENTRES OF VOCATIONAL EXCELLENCE (COVES): WHERE TO FIND THEM AND WHAT THEY COVER
By region no %
Eastern 18 9
East Midlands 21 10
London 27 13
North 15 7
North West 29 14
South East 24 12
South West 21 10
West Midlands 27 13
YorksHumberside 24 12
By subject no %
Engineering 45 22
Construction 32 15.5
CateringTourism 25 12
HealthCare 25 12
Creative 21 10
ICT 17 8.5
Business 15 7.5
Land Based 9 4.5
Retail 5 2.5
Food 5 2.5
SportLeisure 4 2
HairBeauty 2 1
Source: Learning and Skills Council