THE first five work-based centres of vocational excellence were announced this week, and immediately provoked union anger.
The decision to extend the COVE programme into private industry, and beyond the further education sector is a new departure, aimed at boosting skills in priority areas, particularly engineering.
Bryan Sanderson, chairman of the Learning and Skills Council, said that when it and the Government consulted on COVEs last year, the idea of work-based centres received strong backing.
"These work-based centres will allow us to harness the expertise of providers outside the college sector in our bid to build a high-quality vocational path from school to work that addresses the present and future skills need of employers."
But Paul Mackney, general secretary of NATFHE, the lecturers' union, was highly critical. "We knew it was coming," he said. "The private sector has completely failed in its obligations historically - with some honourable exceptions - to invest in training. The public sector has been starved of funding. And now the Government is putting money into the private sector when FE is in crisis."
The Association of Colleges was more sanguine. "We would not object in principle," said a spokeswoman. "The money is not coming out of college funding - we would only object if it was."
The new COVEs will be in addition to the 85 centres based in colleges. They will receive up to pound;300,000 in their first year, pound;150,000 in the second, and pound;100,000 in the third. The money will fund staff development, dissemination of good practice, developing learning packages and boosting the quality of learning.
Mr Sanderson said the COVE programme was "the cornerstone of the Government's policy to reinvigorate technical and vocational specialism within the FE sector.
He added: "The five organisations have identified that training their workforce is an essential part of their business. The more employers invest in training their employees, the more secure and successful their businesses will be."
The five companies are: Avon Vale Training, Trowbridge, Wiltshire (specialist area engineering); BAe Systems, Preston, Lancashire (aeronautical engineering); ITS Training, Felixstowe, Suffolk (international trade and logistics); NG Bailey, Leeds (electrical and mechanical engineering); and South West Durham Training (general engineering).
Martin Bailey, managing director of NG Bailey, said he was delighted their training excellence was being recognised. "Each year we invest more than pound;3 million on training and career development. Extra funding will help to enhance this further. We currently have 485 apprentices, with 3,000 staff having trained through our programme over the past 30 years."
South West Durham Training employs 42 people, with more than 500 advanced modern apprentices covering all types of engineering.
General manager Angus Crowther said: "Our strength has always been to maintain dialogue with local employers to ensure we provide training for their apprentices which matches their ongoing needs and encompasses the full range of engineering skills. As a new COVE, we will be a major catalyst for developing the engineering workforce of the future."
At BAe Systems, the company was looking forward to sharing its good practice with others. Steve Gray, team leader for training operations and funding, said: "We can share our best practice with other training providers. That will help them to raise their standards and help the Government to meet its targets to raise the skills base.
"We will be able to invest in better facilities and more teaching equipment. This will have a big impact on raising the skills of our workforce. We are very proud to be one of the best in the class."