The new programme established to help colleges meet the country's skills needs has proved to be a resounding success, independent research reveals.
Centres of vocational excellence have proved to be good for learners, for staff and for local and regional employers. The Coves were established by the Learning and Skills Council last July. Their role is to work closely with local employers, to innovate, disseminate good practice and promote excellence in vocational specialisms.
An evaluation of the first 16 pathfinders by CRG Consultancy has found universal support from both customers and providers.
Learners get a buzz from being taught by top-quality staff, they enjoy access to state-of-the-art equipment provided by industry and their job prospects have improved.
"Hearing a group of 18-year-olds talk about their tutors as: 'passionate about their subject', 'really wanting us to succeed', 'totally on top of their subject' and 'never caught out' was particularly impressive," says the report.
The confidence of staff has been boosted and they are encouraged to think of new ways of teaching and learning while enjoying their status as leaders in their field.
Staff turnover rates are low. They stay even though they could earn much more in industry. "It is a vocation - they are not in it just for the money," said one head.
Employers see lecturers as "industry experts" with a pragmatic approach, employers and staff meet at all levels and there is eagerness to develop relationships and practices of benefit to all.
The good relations between colleges and business provides substantial benefits. Employers frequently loan, give, test or service equipment. "They are quite different from some other colleges who always approach us with a begging bowl with nothing in it for us," said an employer in engineering.
John Harwood, chief executive of the LSC , said the research findings were extremely encouraging. "They show that employers, as well as learners and staff, appreciate the importance of the programme."
The aim is to provide 400 centres in colleges and work-based learning by 2006.