Getting in to work early

Fran Abrams examines a pilot scheme for 14- to 16-year-olds that offers them the chance to learn practical, job-related skills
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The Independent Online
Nineteen blindfolded teenagers in the car park of Thurston Upper School in Suffolk are taking orders from a 20th. This is vocational education, 1995-style.

The pupils are taking part in a teamwork exercise at the start of a pilot scheme for new courses aimed at teaching job-related skills to 14- to 16-year-olds. Their school is one of 100 across the country that have been selected to take part, and it is offering both manufacturing and business courses to its pupils.

David Stothard, who teaches business studies, says the "shepherd and sheep" session aimed at confidence building and getting to know one another was a great success.

"It's amazing how much they enjoy it. It's got them thinking about what's involved in being a group member," he said.

Even during the shared induction course, pupils are encouraged to think about the world of work. Anyone who arrives late for a lesson without their proper uniform on is reminded that in industry this would never do.

The crucial difference between these courses and the academic ones that they will take alongside them - each "part one" General National Vocational Qualification or GNVQ is equivalent to two GCSEs - is their emphasis on practical work. While GCSE business studies students would be taught about business ownership, GNVQ students might conduct a survey on the subject.

Amanda Wade, 14, is working on an exercise about advertising for which she and a classmate, Jenny Brown, have chosen to look at the local hospital's charity appeal. They are planning to visit the hospital after school to talk to staff and to take photographs, which they will use in a presentation to the rest of the group next week.

Already they have dug out appeal literature and publicity from the local newspaper as well as finding out how many schools in the area have been targeted to publicise and support the campaign.

Both are enjoying the active learning approach. Amanda says her best friend is doing GCSE business studies but now rather wishes she had done GNVQ.

"They are just doing normal work, but we do activities. They are looking at books, but we are doing things," she said.

Amanda has chosen the course because she would like to pursue a career in accountancy; Jenny has not made up her mind yet about what she wants to do in later life. Unlike the vocational schools that pupils can choose at 14 in Germany, these courses leave all options open.

Both groups have a similar split between pupils who see their subject as a career option and those who are simply interested. They will liaise with each other on some projects - for example, a new school tuck shop run by the business group might sell goods designed and produced by manufacturing students.

Far more schools applied to join the pilot than could be accepted, and it is likely that next year's extended scheme will also be popular. Already Thurston Upper School's staff are considering whether to add art and design or leisure and tourism to the repertoire of vocational subjects they offer to 14-year-olds. Other schools are already offering courses in health and social care to this age group, though none can run more than three courses at once.

At Thurston, a mixed comprehensive school, pupils who take a GNVQ will take eight GCSE subjects as well. The school already offers intermediate and advanced vocational courses in science, art, business and health and social care to sixth-formers.

Staff are enthusiastic about the project, though there are some worries about the fact that pupils must be placed early on into "foundation" or "intermediate" groups, which will take separate courses at different levels.

As there are just 20 pupils in each subject these different sets must be taught alongside one another in the same classrooms.

A roughly equal number of boys and girls has chosen business, but no girls opted to do manufacturing despite the fact that both the tutors for the course are women.

The pilot is being carefully monitored and the school is expecting the school inspection body, Ofsted, to visit once a term.

Stewart Chenery, who is in charge of vocational programmes, said the school had been looking for ways of offering such courses to this age group for some time.

"We came back every time unable to see how we could successfully run these courses without creating some sort of low-ability group which was going to be identified throughout the school.

"What this has enabled us to do is to offer a vocational route to students of all abilities. For the first time we are able to put in a course which really has value and which will be recognised by the gate-keepers to further education as well as by employers," he said.