As Labour's New Deal era dawns, The TES asked union and management to set out their new approaches to industrial relations, while Helen Hague reports from Tyneside, a test bed for new Government schemes where the programme is already up and running
New Deal, new challenge, fresh ideas. It is hard not to be impressed by the brio and flair which three further education colleges in the North-east are displaying in providing the full-time education option for young people who have been signing on for more than six months.
The Tyneside region is one of 12 pathfinder areas in England and, as such, the Government's New Deal has already gone live. Under the scheme all 18 to 24-year-olds will risk losing benefits unless they take a subsidised job, work for a voluntary or environmental task force or enter full-time education. In a ministerial soundbite, we are likely to hear more of "there is no fifth option".
But the three colleges in the Tyneside Further Education Colleges Consortium - Newcastle, Gateshead and South Tyneside - are not after reluctant conscripts. They believe they are well-placed to provide high-calibre training and education to help equip young people for the world of work, within organisations which are already providing such opportunities for 45,000 Tyneside employees and residents.
The New Deal is, says David Cheetham, vice-principal of Gateshead College, a "very market-driven model" - and they want young people to make an informed decision to opt for full-time education.
Tyneside Training and Enterprise Council will be fishing in the same pool for eligible New Dealers; they also won a pathfinder contract. But the colleges are convinced they have the edge.
"I believe we can offer both a track record and the added value of being part of a college," said Mr Cheetham. "And there is no way we would want to ghetto-ise those who come to us through New Deal."
With unemployment continuing to fall, only around 700 young people are expected to choose education. But the final number will depend on how many are referred by the Employment Service, which will run the "Gateway" assessment scheme to help New Dealers make the best choice.
Since getting the tender, things have moved fast. Briefing packs have been issued to all staff - the New Deal can apply to existing students under the 16-hour rule as well as new recruits.
But the consortium is keen to brighten-up its image, and appeal to more young people. "We need to come up with a snazzy name which makes us sound relevant and exciting," said Mr Cheetham.
The collaboration between the three colleges builds on a sense of partnership which has made the North-east a test-bed for new practice in the Goverment's eye - as its selection to pilot the University for Industry underscores (see story below).
Had the original tender been accepted, five colleges would have been involved. But plans were scrapped following the Government's decision to deliver education and training provision through the private sector as well.
Mr Cheetham cites the colleges' experience of dealing with a wide range of learning abilities and young people who are sometimes disaffected as strengthening the consortium's position.
Talking to a group of young people currently on JobSeekers Allowance studying for 15 hours a week, the option of full-time study seemed attractive.
Paul Tighe, 18, jobless since leaving school and currently studying NVQ level 2 in bakery, said he would relish the chance of studying full-time.
He had not heard of the New Deal but if it can help him specialise in cake decoration - "I'm a vegetarian so I don't fancy mainstream catering" - it will be fine by him. He does not fancy the idea of signing on, even were the option available.
In early February the Employment Service will be inviting those in the New Deal target groups to public events to spread the word.
Tyneside colleges may well soon be taking on young New Dealers who have more idea of just what it involves, and in doing so demonstrating whether or not they are up to the job. Early indications suggest they will rise to the challenge.