Quest to forge new trading links
This month Darlington's business leaders were invited for the first time to cross the threshold of Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in their own right.
The college's LinkQuest '96 initiative is encouraging employers to banish preconceptions of a purely A-level institution and examine how Queen Elizabeth's newly-expanded information technology suite and other facilities could serve their own training needs.
Under a new Business Associateship scheme, they pay a Pounds 25 subscription for training advice and other benefits.
Closer links will also help the college secure more placements for its expanding programme of general national vocational qualifications and offer students a clearer picture of employer needs.
Such schemes were clearly all too rare for Further Education Funding Council inspectors, who singled out sixth-form colleges for particular criticism when highlighting inadequate college responsiveness to employer needs in a recent report.
But in forging new bonds, the sixth-form institutions must overcome outside perceptions that they are only efficient A-level factories, designed to send students on to higher education.
David Heaton, whose college has earned glowing praise from inspectors for its academic record, believes that reputation can be harnessed to draw in employers, without sacrificing the traditional "core business". Queen Elizabeth college has made closer employer links a top priority in its three-year plan.
"We have opened ourselves up to a very significant culture change," said Mr Heaton. "The goal is to hold on to what we do well but add to our portfolio. "