Everyone working in or with schools agrees on two things: too few 16-year-olds stay on in education and those who do leave at 16 are poorly equipped for the world of work.
Less than half of 16-year-olds gain a C or above in maths, and only 56% achieve this in English. A recent CBI survey found that 42% of employers were not satisfied with school-leavers’ basic literacy and numeracy, and 57% were not satisfied with their communication and problem-solving skills.
One school of thought is that the problem is largely a result of Britain’s schools fast-tracking the more able and motivated to academic courses like A-levels and leaving the rest to flounder in poorly resourced and undervalued vocational courses.
“Vocational education has always been viewed as a second class route into the labour market,” says Andrew Jones of Steer, a local government-funded skills research unit. “The failure in this country to develop an effective vocational educational system has been identified as a key factor in the UK’s relative economic decline.”
Until the comprehensive system replaced grammar and secondary modern schools in most areas in the 1960s and 1970s, children who failed to score sufficiently high in the “11-plus” generally went on to secondary school and received a less ambitious education.
The introduction of comprehensives was supposed to address this. But, instead, they have largely institutionalised the old divide by pushing the “bright” towards A-levels and the “less able” towards work-related courses – 84% of the bottom third of GCSE achievers and less than 10% of the top third go on to take vocational qualifications.
To its credit, in September 2002 the government began to raise the status and quality of work-related education by introducing eight new vocational GSCEs with the same standards and rigour as other GSCEs. And since September 2004, all schools have been required to run work-related courses. In July, chancellor Gordon Brown went on to announce a £140m package of financial incentives in the form of “activity and learning agreements”. These aim to put 30,000 16- and 17-year-olds who are not in school or work or are lacking basic skills back into education by offering them cash in return for signing up to study.
This is in addition to the educational maintenance allowance, a weekly payment of up to £30 to encourage teenagers to continue with at least 12 hours’ guided learning per week – including any vocational course up to Level 3.
But providing a cash incentive alone is not going to enthuse disaffected students to want to learn. Education must also be relevant and rewarding for those who don’t want to pursue academic courses.
This was one of the key objectives of the Tomlinson report in 2003 which suggested the only way to enhance the status of vocational education was to replace GSCEs and A-levels with a unified system of diplomas in which vocational and academic subjects could be combined.
By introducing “parity of esteem” between academic and vocational subjects, all teenagers of all abilities would continue to be stretched and, crucially, it would also encourage higher ability pupils to pursue a vocational path.
Yet the government baulked at abolishing A-levels and merging the vocational and academic qualifications. Ministers were reluctant to dismantle a system that employers found very valuable – a CBI survey of its members found three-quarters were satisfied with A-level recruits’ skills.
Instead, in the white paper on education and skills for 14- to 19-year-olds published in February, the government opted to keep A-levels and GSCEs while reforming the system of vocational qualifications alongside them.
The result is that functional maths and English will be made almost compulsory. Vocational education will be strengthened by the introduction of specialised diplomas, and more work-related education will be directed at disaffected teenagers.
The Learning and Skills Development Agency believes the proposed reforms have the potential “not only to motivate those young people who have become disaffected from education, but also to offer new opportunities to the more academic students as well”.
However, implementing this vision will be a real challenge. “For the proposals to work, schools, colleges and other organisations will need adequate support in order to introduce new subjects, develop their staff, and create new ways of operating,” the agency warns.
‘NVQs were for the not so clever ones’
Vicky Farley, 16, has just left her local secondary school in Eccles to work full-time at the Trafford Centre’s Landscape Team in Greater Manchester.
From the age of 14, she has worked at the centre for one day a week while studying for her Level 1 NVQ in horticulture.
Although she took GSCEs in Maths, English and Science, Vicky insists she is glad to have done the NVQ rather than been obliged to study GCSE French or German.
“NVQs were for those of us who were not as clever as the others, but studying for the qualification gave us the push we needed,” she explains.
“One day a week at the centre was about right. It never affected my studies at school – in fact I worked harder at my GSCEs because I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I left.”
Vicky was given a special recognition award for outstanding excellence by the Trafford Centre in 2004 and the Student of The Year award by her school in 2003.
She now plans to study for her Level 2 NVQ and pursue a career in horticulture.
Vocational education proposals
Revised GCSEs in English and Maths so no student can get a grade C or above without passing a functional skills unit.
A broad programme of study, including national curriculum subjects which will take up about half of students’ time.
Rationalisation of the 3,500 vocational qualifications into more easily recognisable diplomas, containing specialised materials, GCSEs and A-levels. English and maths will be included in every diploma.
Introduction of 14 “lines of learning” covering most occupational sectors, with the first four coming on line in 2008. Learning will be offered in both the workplace and the classroom.
Recognition of movement between academic and vocational routes.
Piloting in 2006 of a strong work-focused programme aimed at seriously disaffected 14- to 16-year-olds.