A VIRTUAL "city campus", where teenagers choose their own subjects and courses and where teachers move between institutions and share expertise and resources, has taken a major step towards becoming a reality.
The Bristol campus is a pioneering pound;100 million initiative to reorganise and improve education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds.
The campus, which will replace sixth forms with a network of specialist centres linked to schools and colleges, aims to raise standards, attract more learners and offer a better choice of opportunities.
Its leaders want to make Bristol a recognised centre of excellence for urban education and training by 2007.
John Savage, chairman of the campus board, said: "Nobody should be kept from achievement, from gaining the knowledge required to live a full life, by the lottery of geography or of insufficient wealth. This is a call to reality - we do what we have done, now we must do better."
The campus, which will open by September 2004, was launched at a conference last week as Bristol faces a continuing crisis within its secondary schools. Despite some of the best nurseries and primaries in the country, only 30 per cent of pupils gain five GCSE at grades A* to C (the national average is 50 per cent), while 11.2 per cent do not get a qualification at all, compared with a national average of 5.4 per cent.
Valerie Davey, the Labour MP for Bristol West and a member of the Education and Skills Select Committee, told the 100 delegates: "The eyes of the Government are on this city. It is fully behind this scheme and wants it to succeed, because there will be lessons to learn for other cities.
"We must keep more young people in full-time education. It is crucial, not just for their future, but for this city and for this country."
The conference heard how the foundations of the campus were first laid on Merseyside. Sir George Sweeney, a college principal from Knowsley, where rates of post-16 participation and success are on a par with Bristol, said:
"If you look back since education league tables started, the position in Knowsley relative to the national average didn't change for a decade or more. We recognised that if we continued to do what we always did, we'd get what we'd always got. We realised we had to do something different."
He described the birth of the Knowsley collegiate - a virtual college made up of schools, colleges, Connexions, the local learning and skills council and local employers.
Sir George said: "We behave as if we are one institution. We came up with the notion that at the age of 14 all our youngsters should enter the collegiate through the portal of a home school. The portal schools are responsible for making sure that the pupils get their entitlement."
The Bristol campus is co-ordinated by the local education authority, Connexions and the Learning and Skills Council.
Paul May, executive director of the West of England LSC, said it will help solve the problems of low participation and performance highlighted in last year's area inspection.
He said: "We found there was a lot of good work across the city. But the sum of the parts didn't add up to the whole. We had to think about how we pull it all together.
"That was the reason we went for the collaborative solution of a campus.I think it offers a unique opportunity to do something different."