Ben Russell reports on forward-looking links between colleges and school 'post-16 centres'.
Headteacher Barry Morrison used to carry textbooks with him when he went to the supermarket. He would lend the books to his former pupils working on the checkouts, to encourage them to keep up their studies.
Now his school, Newall Green high, a comprehensive in a deprived part of south Manchester, has a small but growing sixth form thanks to an innovative partnership with a city FE college.
Newall Green's two-year-old link with the Manchester College of Arts and Technology is just one of a series of schemes springing up across Britain; projects seen as a blueprint for future co-operation between colleges and their former local authority paymasters.
The Manchester experiment sprang from college managers' realisation that they probably had more students on courses run under the college's partnerships with the former Soviet state of Latvia than in some districts of the city. Staff decided to redouble their efforts to raise participation rates at home.
Mr Morrison said: "I can remember a really desperate dad standing at the door and saying 'My daughter is doing languages and she has to have a modern languages newspaper, but I don't know how to pay for it'. I can remember taking economics and sociology textbooks to Tesco."
Four schools, Wright Robinson, Newall Green, Spurley Hey and North Manchester high school for girls, are now involved with MANCAT in the post-16 scheme. Each now has a sixth form of up to 20 pupils.
Similar schemes are now springing up in Birmingham, Lowestoft, and other parts of the country, where colleges are taking advantage of a relaxation in relations between colleges and schools.
Talks are also under way at national level to free the planning of post-16 education, to end the fierce competition between some schools and colleges which has been condemned by ministers.
Officials at the Department for Education and Employment are also understood to be looking at changes to regulations which prevent colleges from offering secondary education - to allow disaffected 14 and 15-year-olds into colleges to give their schooling a vocational edge.
The Manchester scheme is claimed to have raised participation rates dramatically - more than 10 per cent -in areas of high unemployment which score highly on any measure of deprivation.
Many of the pupils at the four Manchester schools express fear of a large, anonymous college, and point to the familiar atmosphere of a school-based sixth-form centre as a central factor in their decision to stay on.
Programmes deliberately concentrate on advanced or intermediate general national vocational qualifications to draw young people in, with a limited range of A-levels in some places. Teachers admit the curriculum on offer is narrow, but argue that choice is unnecessary if they offer young people what they want. Staff at each centre insist that students are given advice on a wide choice of options.
Amanda Boswell, aged 18, is studying English, history and biology A-level at Newall Green. She left school at 16 and went to a local college, but dropped out three months later and got work in a supermarket.
She said: "I was a supervisor at a supermarket, but I thought I wanted more than that. I wanted to get an education. I came back here because I was used to it and they had the subjects I wanted.
"At college there were lots of people I did not know and the courses I decided to take were not right."
Most of the students taken on under the MANCAT scheme are the first in their families to stay on at college - a factor which staff feel makes the familiar surroundings of a school-based setting all the more advantageous.
The MANCAT project has been developed in close co-operation with the city council.
The path, however, has not been smooth. Staff involved in the scheme operate in a twilight world between local authority-run schools and the world of FE, controlled from Coventry by the Further Education Funding Council.
There are two funding regimes and two sets of inspectors to scrutinise their work. Costs have to be tightly monitored and controlled to ensure that cash allocated for compulsory education does not subsidise sixth-form work, a common practice in 11 to 18 schools.
The centres themselves are never referred to as sixth forms. A school needs the Education Secretary's permission to establish a sixth form. However, a post-16 centre, funded by the FEFC and run in partnership with a college requires no such approval.
There are problems. But Jean Gledhill, headteacher at South Manchester High School for Girls, insists all can be overcome - with a little difficulty. "If you believe this work is worthwhile for the students you overcome the problems. The problems are things which it is up to us to solve."
MANCAT principal Peter Tavernor has championed the college's links with the Labour-run authority, as well as the links with local schools forged by MANCAT's post-16 director Richard Barrett.
He welcomed overtures towards the colleges currently being made by leaders of the local authorities, and the new shifts towards greater planning of the post-16 sector, branding those principals opposed to a greater voice for local authorities as a "bunch of clowns".
Mr Tavernor, whose walls are covered with pictures of prominent Labour politicians and trade unionists on college visits, said the college had moved in to try to provide planning for sixth-form education where none had existed before.
He said: "A lot of us had to eat our words; large tertiary sites were not working, so we had to think about what other services should be put in place. What we have created is a post-16 planning framework with strong routes from 14-plus, which could go city-wide."