NO one will have been surprised by the National Audit Office's recent discovery that specialist colleges are more expensive to run than other further education or sixth-form colleges. They have higher fixed costs, they run expensive courses and there are fewer students.
Agricultural colleges need to run farms and students need to be trained on a range of ever more sophisticated and costly machinery. But finance committees turn pale when faced with a bid for a tractor that costs enough to fund a history department for years. Teaching groups in workshops must also be small to comply with health and safety regulations.
Following the NAO's report, the Further Education Funding Council has announced a 5 per cent increase in funding for specialist colleges in 2000-01.
But Roger Tiller, section manager for engineering and forestry at Sparsholt College, believes that broader changes may be needed.
He said colleges would need more money, perhaps gained through partnership with the big agricultural companies that could give students access to up-to-date machinery. Provision could also be regionalised so that colleges would specialise in particular aspects of agriculture rather than trying to serve a wide range of students' needs. This would need at least some planning at national level.
Small employers also need support n training their staff. Although students on national traineeships and modern apprenticeships have their college fees paid, work-based NVQ assessments can cost employers a lot of time and money.
There is little incentive for a small employer to train workers, who may then be poached by other companies. Mature students who want to change career must usually pay their own fees.
As an industry with an often-troubled public image, agriculture needs to recruit well-informed young people. LANTRA, the national training organisation for the land-based industries, wants schools to be able to keep a spread of qualifications adapted to a range of aptitudes. It was alarmed when recent attempts by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to rationalise exam provision led to rumours that the GCSE in agriculture and horticulture would be withdrawn.
Fearing that specialist teaching and facilities could be lost forever, LANTRA argued for keeping both the agriculture and horticulture GCSE with its 50 per cent practical coursework and the more academic rural studies GCSE. The different types of course appeal to a wide range of students, and being work-related, not vocational, give them broad knowledge and understanding without tying them into a specific career. The QCA has agreed to consider the matter further.