Passions rise over enterprise college

28th April 2006 at 01:00
One of the country's most innovative education directors has clashed with the country's richest man over the future of vocational education for pupils failed by an academic-dominated system.

Michael O'Neill of North Lanarkshire this week cautioned a Scottish Executive conference that vocational education was "unsustainable" if it was based outside secondaries, as much of it now is. Mr O'Neill warned there was a danger of opening up a divide that would re-create the old junior secondary schools.

But Sir Tom Hunter, the retail tycoon and educational philanthropist, last week proposed the creation of an enterprise college for some pupils as early as their first year in secondary.

Sir Tom told a conference on young people who are not in education, employment or training (the NEET group) that the 20 per cent of youngsters who fail in secondaries might do better if they were able to combine "the best of enterprise education with a truly vocational education in further education".

Another of the country's most experienced local authority education officers appeared to agree. "The school environment might not be the best place for this group of pupils to be working," John Mulgrew, former education director in East Ayrshire, said.

Along with Sir Tom, Mr Mulgrew is a member of the Smith group set up to tackle the problem of high numbers of young people who go off the radar after they leave school.

Mr O'Neill this week spelt out an entirely different approach, with vocational options from S2 to suit everyone. "If we do not do something in schools and make them truly comprehensive, we are inevitably opening the doors to the possibility of the vocational post-14 school, as happens in other European countries," he said.

Option choices from S2, or S1 in some schools, had to include "mix and match" vocational and academic subjects through to age 16, Mr O'Neill said.

Around 1,000 pupils are presently following vocational courses in his own authority, most in secondaries.

"On a practical point, it is not sustainable to continue as we are. There are problems if we are paying for 30 per cent or more of the third and fourth-years to be bussed all over the place," he said. "There are problems with supervision on buses, buses breaking down and partial care in a college environment for pupils. You could ask 'why are we still funding schools when they are sending half their pupils to college?'" Mr O'Neill said if it was possible to do technical subjects, art and home economics in school, it should be possible to do construction or hairdressing by bringing in college lecturers. He invited Sir Tom to help with the necessary capital investment.

In his remarks last week, Sir Tom declared that the time for talking was over and action was needed to target the 20 per cent of pupils for whom the current system was not working. Pupils leaving primary should be able to choose an enterprise college which he described as "a hybrid affair" that would help them achieve their ambitions to work at 16.

With the Scottish Executive due to launch its NEET strategy in a few weeks, Sir Tom said: "This NEET group exemplifies all that is unjust in Scotland.

We cannot watch so many of our own children being marked out and prepared for an empty future. No one is born bad or predetermined to a life of unemployment, or worse."

It was time to break what appeared to be a "genetic code" of NEET-ness.

People knew what worked, he said, and what was needed was co-ordination.

But the NEET conference also heard a word of caution from Sir Robert Smith, who chairs the group, that the young people involved should not be treated as a homogeneous or static cluster. He pointed out that almost half of the 2003 cohort had moved into education, employment or training within a year.

NEET 4-5; Leader 22

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