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17th January 2003 at 00:00
As we move towards specialisation, learning will leap institutional boundaries and link with other sectors

Exeter is a city in educational flux. As part of a pound;79 million private finance initiative building programme, the system of lower, middle and upper schools is about to be scrapped, with the 14-19 vocational curriculum being reborn as "the virtual college".

From age 14, pupils will become educational citizens of this compact city, free to travel wherever their learning aspirations are best served. The concept of the virtual college is one recommendation of an enquiry chaired by Professor Ted Wragg, which is overseeing the planning of education in Exeter.

"You should be able to go to wherever the specialist teaching or facilities are," he says. "We decided to treat people of 14 as grown up, because in most cases, physically, they are."

This year, 150 students from five high schools are taking part in a pilot of the virtual college. Students can use each other's facilities and those of Exeter college. Sixty-five Year 10s from St Luke's high school, for instance, are doing courses in engineering, health and social care or leisure and tourism on Wednesday afternoon visits to Exeter college. "It has lifted our students' horizons and given them a vocational diversity that we could not provide," says headteacher Terry Hammond.

The pilot is creating success for its first Year 10 cohort, says Mandi Street, headteacher of Priory high school. Since September, 25 Priory students have travelled to Exeter college each week to take courses in business studies or mechanical engineering. "Timetabling difficulties are enormous but not insurmountable," says Mandi Street. But results are promising. "We're seeing young people motivated, and those who would be performing at a D or E, performing at level C."

One aim of the virtual college proposals is to shift the status of vocational education, highly regarded in much of Europe and the United States but still stuck with an image problem here. Exeter high school heads have opened the college option to a broad range of students, says Terry Hammond, including the most academic. "It doesn't detract from the academic side," he says. "And it has a social value for all students - travelling to college, working with pupils from other schools."

The current pilot is just the first stage of Exeter's planned virtual college. The ultimate aim is to have a city-wide vocational curriculum available to all pupils post-14. But, says Ted Wragg: "Although there is a clarity of general purpose, it will take directions we can't anticipate."

ONES TO WATCH

Sussex virtual college Consortium of 16 colleges and sixth forms

Learning and Teaching Scotland Portal for debate

National College for School Leadership Online community for heads

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