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Testing our patience


In October the Tomlinson Report made radical proposals to overhaul the UK's examination system.But last week's Government White Paper gained a mixed reception from a construction industry seeking more status for vocational education. Russ Lynch reports

SIR MIKE Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, tore up the textbook last year when he unveiled his plans to replace GCSEs and A Levels with a new wide-ranging diploma that sought to breach the traditional divide between 'vocational' and 'academic' learning.

His proposals - which brought together GCSE, A Levels and apprenticeships under the aegis of a new four-stage diploma - were greeted with optimism by an industry fed up with snobbish and elitist attitudes towards vocational learning.

Last week, education secretary Ruth Kelly produced the Government's response to Tomlinson in its White Paper on 14-19 learning, and - surprise, surprise - failed to grasp the nettle.

With one eye on the potential political fall-out just before a likely general election, Labour played it safe and opted to keep GCSEs and A Levels.

By 2015, 14 new specialist diplomas uniting vocational qualifications will instead be brought in alongside the traditional framework - with a diploma in Construction and the Built Environment to be introduced by 2010 (see box).

The Government said its move was designed to sort out '? an alphabet soup of qualifications of different sizes, at different levels, with few clear progression routes between them' It added: 'Vocational education for young people has often failed to command the confidence of employers, higher education and the general public.'

Quite so. But the industry argues that this lack of confidence comes from the fact that, while A Levels and GCSEs are in place, vocational qualifications will always be seen as 'second-rate'- the exams you do because you are not clever enough to do A Levels.

David Cormican, president of the British Association of Construction Heads, is bitterly disappointed by the Government's decision. His organisation represents the views of construction departments at more than 220 further education colleges around the country.

He said: 'I thought that it would do much to provide parity of esteem between the vocational and the educational sectors.

'The Government has indicated that A Levels and GCSEs are fine and don't need fixing and says all we need is this diploma.That is wrong.And it shows that all the talk about the Government looking to break down the attitudes of snobbery towards vocational education was just rhetoric.'

He added: 'The diploma is a very worthy innovation but I would have preferred an overarching diploma, with A Levels and GCSEs subsumed into it.This was a very valuable opportunity and it has been missed by the Government.'

This disappointment has been echoed by the Construction Confederation, whose past presidents, such as former Mowlem boss Sir John Gains, have been outspoken about the need for a greater emphasis on vocational education.

A spokesman for the confederation said: 'A single, overarching diploma, comprising both vocational and academic components, would have avoided the unfortunate 'two-tier' system, which will inevitably dub vocational diplomas as second-rate qualifications.

'We need Government to ensure a framework exists where vocational achievement carries the same weight and is given the same respect as academic success. I'm afraid I don't believe this White Paper achieves that.'

The Government does emphasise that employers will be heavily involved in drawing up the requirements of the diploma. It also says in the White Paper that existing Young Apprenticeship and Apprenticeship schemes will be drawn into the new framework.

CITB-ConstructionSkills has welcomed the diploma, but it is seeking four key commitments from the Government to make the proposals a reality.

It wants the industry to be central to building the curriculum for vocational qualifications through sector skills councils and direct partnership and it wants to see the construction skills diploma before 2008, two years earlier than the Government's current plans.

CITB-ConstructionSkills is also looking for apprenticeships to be a central route to core skills and qualifications, with employers 'leading the charge' for more apprentices, supported by schools, careers advisers, Government and colleges.

But crucially it also wants the Government to start walking the walk on funding.

Chief executive Peter Lobban threw down a challenge when he said: 'The construction industry has already pledged £1.25 billion to fund training and education in our sector.We want Government to use this new focus on vocational education to match that funding within the new framework.'

He added: 'Vocational skills cannot be taught unless the industry that practices that vocation is involved at every level.We have enough problems with classroom-based vocational courses not preparing students with the qualifications and practice they need.You can teach skills but you need practice to master them.'

While Government funding will be pivotal, the White Paper has little to say about encouraging more employers to offer work placements to potential apprentices when the Young Apprentice and Apprenticeship schemes are brought under the banner of the diploma.

When it states, 'we want to challenge employers to become more involved in providing opportunities to learn in a work setting' there is a suspicion that the unsaid caveat is, 'but we're not going to give you any more money to do it' The White Paper rather vaguely adds: 'Quite how much employer engagement there is will, of course, depend on employers, both on the local employment market and on employers'willingness to get involved.'

Skills and vocational education minister Ivan Lewis made some cautious noises last summer about a small extra funding incentive for employers 'being considered' but since then there has been deathly silence on the subject.

The Government acknowledges concern about low completion levels and in a recent House of Lords debate Baroness Walmsley raised fears over a 50 per cent drop-out rate on apprenticeships.But how this will be turned around under the new diploma system remains unclear.

The White Paper states: 'Already the Apprenticeship has the features that we have said should characterise the diploma - a core of functional skills, significant vocational content, relevant academic content, and its design is employer-led.'

So from one point of view it looks like the diploma is just a change of name.

And while the Government makes the right noises about 'challenging traditional stereotypes' to encourage candidates from any gender, ethnicity or background to help ease skills shortages in construction - a necessary aim - again, it doesn't elaborate on the 'high-quality advice and guidance'with which it plans to bring about this seismic cultural shift overnight.

Educationalists and the industry have accused the Government of tinkering around the edges rather than boldly getting to grips with the foundations - and the White Paper largely bears out their complaints.

The UK is light years behind the rest of Europe on vocational education and unless policymakers are prepared to make a cultural leap of faith, the construction industry will suffer as young people fail to sign up to a 'secondrate' educational path.

Diploma timetable

TO GAIN a diploma, the Government says that young people will need to achieve appropriate standards in English and Maths, attain specialised learning and relevant GCSEs and A Levels as well as completing work experience.

The diploma will be introduced in 14 subject areas by 2015, with the first four - information and communication technology, engineering, health and social care and creative and media - available in 2008.

Construction and the Built Environment will be included in the second wave of diplomas to be introduced by 2010.

The Government is asking the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to work with employers to draw up a set of national standards, tied to international benchmarks, which will apply to all diplomas.

At the outset diplomas will be made up of existing qualifications and units of qualifications.

The White Paper states: 'Within each diploma there will be options but we need to have the confidence that the combination of units taken really does provide the sort of preparation that employers and universities are looking for.'

It adds: 'We would expect as sector skills councils design these diplomas, they will often include at least some GCSEs and A Levels among the requirements.The new GCSEs in vocational subjects would be prominent among these, as would vocational A Levels.'

Skills councils will determine the course content - working with the QCA to decide what young people will need to get a good preparation for employment.