Industrial strength partnerships
These days, no school can offer all 14 to 16-year-olds the courses they need. Some want new experiences alongside school to keep them in education, others are looking for a taste of a possible future career, and some of the most able want to mix applied courses with their general GCSEs.
Collaboration at key stage 4 has been going on for years, usually between schools and the local further education college, or a training provider, often on an ad hoc basis and for small numbers of students. But with every student entitled to a curriculum that fits their needs under the 14-19 Agenda, with the push for greater access to vocational experience and the introduction of specialised diplomas including applied GCSEs, the demand is exploding.
Latest statistics from the Department for Education and Skills shows there are 100,000 14 to 16-year-olds splitting their time between school and college or a training centre. The growth has been rapid, but still has a long way to go to hit the Government target of 250,000 by 2010.
Many local partnerships have set themselves ambitious goals. The South Ribble Learning Federation covers 11 high schools, an 11-18 school, two special schools and three FE colleges in the Preston area. But over the years, demand for level 1 and 2 construction courses had outgrown the colleges' capacity.
Now, with help from industry, what started as a vocational course at college on Wednesday afternoons includes a full-time centre, with space for expansion. "We're identifying needs at grassroots level rather than policy coming down from above," says Michael Flynn, headteacher of All Hallows Catholic high school.
The Lancashire Education Business Partnership was able to bring together the schools that wanted vocational courses and industries who have an interest in encouraging future workers into construction, where there are serious skills shortages.
The main player has been Eric Wright Construction. Premises belonging to a plant hire firm on a site central to the schools are now the Eric Wright Learning Foundation Centre, with two workshops and a classroom run by a manager and assistant and teaching staff for up to 75 students studying bricklaying and joinery (pictured below).
Overseen by a board representing the schools, the local learning and skills council, the education authority, the business partnership and industry, the centre hopes to add painting and decorating next year. And by running evening classes and courses for local apprentices during the school holidays, it should become self-financing.
The business partnership used its contacts and expertise to put together a package that could attract business and win the support of the local authority and the LSC. Eric Wright Construction contributed money and the professional and technical skills to convert the premises. Courses had to be designed to suit the students, meet the needs of industry and convince parents they were worthwhile.
"It's interesting the way our programme was developing from the bottom up,"
says Mr Flynn. "Schools were saying that collaboratively they could make a centre work rather than the LSC or the local authority saying they could satisfy a need.
Further north, schools in Barrow-in-Furness share a wide range of Applied GCSEs and BTec diploma courses with Furness FE and Barrow sixth form colleges as part of the South Cumbria Secondary Learning Innovation. It is a well-established collaboration that grew out of providing GNVQs for the town's pupils. Working through Brian Wood, the 14-19 area development manager for Furness, they have established a set of agreed procedures to allow diverse institutions to work together.
But the benefits of the consortium go beyond vocational courses into subject networks, developing the student voice in a joint school council meeting on racism and a staff conference on raising boys' achievement.
Schools and colleges are sharing training on teaching 14 to 16-year-olds.
And back in Preston, Michael Flynn thinks that the federation gives headteachers a greater feeling of being in control. Industry is more willing to invest time and money for all the schools in an area, rather than just one or two, he says, and, speaking with a collective voice, schools can discuss improvements to children's services with the local authority.
But even with the greatest goodwill, some practical problems are intractable. Furness college will offer 40 Young Apprenticeships in engineering to key stage 4 students next year, but when approximately four youngsters from each school will be spending two days a week in college, how can they fit the rest of their core programme and other GCSEs into their individual school timetables?
And sharing students can set up conflicts with the institutions' other interests. The funding does not cover the real costs of many of the college courses, such as engineering, though colleges can hope to offset this against recruiting 16-year-olds. But where schools have sixth forms, they will try to hang on to lucrative students.
There are also concerns that when the funding for the Increased Flexibility Programme (designed to help schools collaborate with other providers on vocational courses) is devolved into schools' budgets next year, they may decide to use it to go it alone and cut down on collaborative activities, leaving their partners, who may have taken on extra staff, high and dry.
The issue of funding has brought other grievances to the fore. Doing the same job for the students as school teachers rankles with college staff who have lower pay and less funding per student. Sixth form colleges feel threatened when 11-16 schools are free to set up their own sixth forms. And they cannot access funding from the LSC for the under-16s; they don't have the industrial base to become Centres of Vocational Excellence, and because they are not schools, they cannot increase funding by achieving specialist status.
What happens to collaboration in the future will depend on the willingness and ability of all the partners to pay.