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Vocational link built on early start

Martin Whittaker looks at a partnership scheme which offers practical training in metal and woodwork to 14 and 15-year-olds

In a carpentry workshop at North Devon College, students are busy putting together corner cupboards. Across at the engineering workshop another group is making plastic handles for screwdrivers.

They look too young to be attending an FE college - and indeed they are. These are all 14 and 15-year-olds bussed in from outlying areas.

The pupils are at college thanks to a collaboration between North Devon College, Barnstaple, and local schools. The scheme, the NVQ For Schools Partnership, is now in its third year.

Robin Pickering, the college's divisional manager for mechanical engineering, says the scheme has increased recruitment to the technology department, brought the students an element of continuity and given the schools access to good facilities.

"It's something schools and colleges nationally should be considering, " he said. "One of our priorities is for the college to be involved in recruiting students and increasing numbers. We have to appeal to people at an early age. We are giving them a taste of what vocational training is all about."

The partnership idea came in 1994 at a meeting between the college and local schools. It arose from the feeling that with the end of O and A-level wood and metalwork, there was something lacking in the National Curriculum.

Keith Muncey, a teacher from Holsworthy Community College, and one of the scheme's co-founders, said: "There was a straightforward consensus; there's quite a large number of kids in the school for whom GCSE doesn't work, so we need to refocus on practical skills."

Another factor was the local economy. Mr Pickering said: "We have a massive skills shortage in North Devon. Companies have a problem recruiting from other parts of the country as the wages here are below national average.

"From the college's point of view we needed to raise the profile of engineering and construction at an earlier age; starting at 14. We wanted a 14-19 framework instead of the 16-19 one which we have for the modern apprenticeship."

The North Devon schools taking part are Holsworthy Community College, Pilton Community College, Barnstaple and Great Torrington secondary school.

When the idea was first discussed, there were worries among the schools. "When we started this we were being illegal," said Mr Muncey. "We had the National Curriculum saying we must do a recognisable technology qualification.

"Also it's a disruptive thing - taking kids off timetable. And, of course, management were going to have to justify it. In the beginning they were very wobbly but now they're l00 per cent behind it."

This year there were 40 applicants for 25 places. Initially pupils do either a full day or two half-days per term.They then go on to to a full work experience week, two and a half days in wood and two and a half in metalwork. Their work is assessed and they earn units towards an NVQ level 1.

Mr Muncey believes there are real benefits to the pupils: "One of the quotes I heard after a first visit was 'can I go there all the time please?' "Schools are bizarre places for a 15-year-old - they're treated as a herd. Here, they're in a more adult environment. They're not in uniform, they're working by themselves and there's no hassle.

"There's also a clarity about what they're learning. It's very straightforward, whereas a lot of the academic side of their life, even with technology, is cluttered with stuff which doesn't make a lot of sense to them. "The first lot went through last year. I got Bs and Cs out of some of these kids, which is a good grade."

Peter Blessing would go along with that. He is nearly 17 and was among the NVQ For Schools Partnership's first intake. He is now doing block release carpentry and joinery full-time at the college.

"We now have 24 apprentices doing engineering," said Mr Pickering. "We have almost trebled the numbers in our workshop."

But there is a question mark over its future. Though the scheme has been part-funded over the three years with Pounds 12,500 from the Construction Industry Training Board, its co-founders don't yet know whether that funding will continue.

The CITB funds similar partnerships - many involving FE colleges - throughout the UK under its Curriculum Centre Initiative.

Irene Andrews, CITBs manager of pre-vocational education, says: "It's about pooling expertise and resources because the FE colleges tend to have the workshops and staff expertise which the schools don't necessarily have. "

Keighley College, West Yorkshire, runs link courses with schools and has about l00 14-16-year-olds passing through per year.

Mark Curtis, the college's pre-16 co-ordinator, says the links have been built up over the past 10 years, but said it really started to get going when the Dearing Report came out.

"Dearing was putting emphasis on the vocational curriculum, looking at what to do with 14 to 16-year- olds - that gave it a boost and legitimised what schools were doing with the college.

"The partnership is between the college, CITB and local schools. And we work a lot with Bradford education authority, all working together to the same ends. It really does work - and it's a good buzz."

John Brennan, Association of Colleges director of Further Education development, says: "A lot of this kind of activity went on a decade ago. Then as a result of changes in funding arrangements and so on, a lot of it died away."

Could we see these partnerships increase to provide more 14 to 19 provision in colleges? Mr Brennan believes so.

"It's particularly relevant to the Government's attempts to target the disaffected, not because colleges necessarily see themselves focusing on them, but because what they can offer is a vocational provision of a kind which motivates kids - particularly boys - who are switched off by academic approaches in school."

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