Raising their standards

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Three colleges where success is already part of the curriculum

Young people who come to us often dislike school and dislike teachers," says Clive Weston, head of construction at Accrington and Rossendale College. "We have to break down that barrier and stimulate them to want to learn life and construction skills."

Mr Weston, who has been with the college 17 years, attributes its success to good staff, teamwork and an emphasis on teaching. Staffstudent sports also break down barriers. "We play football and go dry-skiing together."

In their first year, students are full-time. They get an intensive six-week introduction to their chosen craft, studying for 37 hours a week including one evening. They then go on work placements and come into college one day a week, as well as for some blocks of learning. They get 1,100 hours of teaching over two years to reach level two (GCSE equivalent), compared with a national average of 700 hours.

Mr Weston believes in this intensive start: "Employers expect too much from students if they come straight from school." With a grounding in their chosen craft, students are less likely to drop out, and employers are happy. Retention and pass rates are above 90 per cent and the college has a good reputation with local industry.

"Students who first experience college on day release tend to retain all their old prejudices about school and teachers," says Mr Weston.

With an award of grade one in its last two Further Education Funding Council inspections, the college's construction department became one of the country's first Centres of Vocational Excellence. The department is strong in construction crafts, carpentry and joinery, bricklaying, painting and decorating, plastering, plumbing, electrical and interior design.

Last year, four students won medals in the national finals of the Construction Skills competition run by UK Skills.

I welcome a three-year funding plan and a more mature relationship with the funding body. It's a great step forward," says Dr Rob Wilkinson, principal of Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge.

He will be one of the first beneficiaries, because Ofsted praised his college's leadership and management - and it also gets very good results.

These, Dr Wilkinson admits, are partly due to the fact that Hills Road attracts students already doing well academically with good GCSE scores.

The college will not take a student on to an A-level course without at least a B in that subject at GCSE. But he insists the college also adds value: the average student achieves a higher grade at A-level than his or her GCSE score suggests.

The college leadership praised by Ofsted exists at all levels, he says, adding: "It is expected of heads of department as well. It's about setting high standards in every field of activity and checking they are met, and supporting students and staff and each other in achieving them."

It's also about record-keeping, of course: the new autonomy colleges created under Success for All will only work if they keep the data that tells them whether they are meeting their targets.

"We have strong systems for quality assurance," Dr Wilkinson says. "We protect staff from administration as far as possible, and our QA systems give them information to work with."

Yorkshire and Humberside is the second-biggest area in Britain for the print industry after London and the South-East. Print is Britain's fifth-biggest manufacturing industry, so it is natural for Leeds College to specialise in print media.

"We're about making sure our industry is competitive within the global market," says principal Jim McWilliams. The institution teaches design, packaging and production and boasts Britain's only college course in carton production. It also collaborates with Leeds University to teach a BSc in printing, packaging and graphics.

The extra funding obtained from becoming a Centre of Vocational Excellence - a COVE - has enabled it to spend pound;1.4 million on new print technology.

"We make a contribution to the UK print industry as a very proactive skills development COVE," Mr McWilliams says.

The college also welcomes 14-year-old pupils from local schools who have expressed an interest in print as a career.

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