A PIONEERING scheme to promote apprenticeship opportunities is under way in a North-East town at the centre of a £4.5bn train building deal.

Yesterday, representatives from six major employers in Newton Aycliffe , County Durham, attended the town’s Woodham Academy for the launch of the Year 9 Apprenticeship Challenge.

The £10,000 scheme is thought to be the first in the UK to focus on providing a whole year group with an insight into the role of an apprentice.

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It follows a decision by the Hitachi-led consortium Agility Trains to build high-speed intercity locomotives at Aycliffe Business Park and also coincides with the Foundation for Jobs campaign – a joint initiative to tackle youth unemployment involving Darlington Borough Council, The Northern Echo and the Darlington Partnership, made up of public and private sector organisations.

Woodham’s Associate assistant headteacher and careers guidance coordinator, Sarah McGinnety, said: “As a key employer in the area, Hitachi will offer a wealth of career and job opportunities over the coming years.

Manufacturing and engineering will be particularly important in supplying a total railway system.

“It is important that our students are aware of their future local labour market and have the skills to meet it.”

The nine-week challenge, which is funded by Great Aycliffe and Middridge Area Action Partnership, will see students work with staff from Stiller Transport, Ebac, Tallent Automotives, Finlay Structures, Palram and 3M UK. It will culminate with a Dragon’s Denstyle final, where each tutor group will present their findings to a panel of judges.

At yesterday’s launch, the companies gave each tutor group a summary of what they do. A draw was then taken to determine which students will work with which firm for the remainder of the project.

Gail Anderson, human resources manager at Palram, said she was looking forward to giving students an insight into the company, which manufactures semi-finished extruded thermoplastic sheets, panel systems and products.

“We are definitely keen to take on more apprentices,”

said Ms Anderson.

“Ultimately, what we are looking for is an eagerness to work and learn.”

Dave Spensley, of Aycliffe Fabrications, who helped recruit companies for the scheme, said: “It is important young people are aware of all the opportunities available when they leave school. Apprenticeships offer a fantastic route to further training and employment.”