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Topshop training venture criticised

Vocational academy too much like trainees on the cheap for retail mogul, says union. Joseph Lee reports.

A new pound;10 million "Topshop Academy", to be funded by the Government and the billionaire Philip Green, has been criticised for handing control of the curriculum to its corporate sponsor.

The vocational academy for 16 to 18-year-olds, announced last week, is intended to equip teenagers with skills ranging from finance to window-dressing and create the store managers and retail moguls of tomorrow.

But critics said Arcadia, Mr Green's retail empire of brands that includes Topshop and Burton, was effectively being given a training facility at a discount - with the Government paying the difference.

John Bangs, National Union of Teachers' head of education, said: "I am not against vocational initiatives which try to meet the educational needs of pupils, but also factor in the world of work.

"The problem I have is that this looks like some kind of extra training school for Philip Green. It seems to me the balance has gone wrong. The curriculum is skewed towards one industry, which closes down the life chances of pupils.

"In a sense, Mr Green is getting a major training facility, for students he may or may not employ afterwards, on the cheap."

The Government and Arcadia will fund the building jointly, but the firm hopes the Learning and Skills Council will meet the running costs. The amount that Mr Green will contribute has not yet been decided.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, said that the academy's curriculum needed to be drawn up with business to ensure it was relevant, and invited other employers to start similar schemes. He said: "The most important thing is that it meets the needs of employers. You can have all the education you like but unless it relates to the real world, it's not as useful as it could be."

Mr Green, who this summer pulled out of a bid to buy Marks Spencer, also announced a pound;1.25 million scheme to fund 50 specialist business and enterprise schools.

The Monaco-based tax exile said the academy could be open in London within a year and would offer 200 pupils annually the chance to study a new qualification, which was being discussed with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Mr Green, who left school at 16 with no qualifications, said: "We are finding there is a real lack of talent coming through the ranks.

"This will be for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who don't want to go to university but would like a career in retail. It will bring some multi-skilled people into the retail world, training people by building a store inside the academy."

But pupils would not be facing dead-end jobs on the shop floor, he said.

The biggest staff shortages were in management jobs offering about Pounds 150,000 a year.

Peter Heaviside, director of counselling and Connexions at the careers service Prospects, said: "An academy just for retail is unlikely to work.

Young people don't generally see retail as an attractive career option."

The academy might be more attractive if it taught broader skills of entrepreneurship, rather than tying them to a shop floor context, he said.

"The realisation that they can get the more rewarding, senior positions tends to come later."

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