Pupils opting out of school to learn trade

The number of teenagers choosing vocational courses over academic study is soaring
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The Independent Online

School will soon be out for more than 200,000 14- and 15-year-olds in favour of learning a trade at college.

Figures in a report by the Association of Colleges (AoC), which represents college principals, show the number opting to quit school for three days a week will doublefrom 100,000 by 2007-08.

Ministers originally believed the scheme, under which youngsters can spend time on work experience or at college, would cater for around 40,000 youngsters bored with the academic curriculum. However, the numbers have soared.

The scheme has revolutionised learning for 14- and 15-year-olds, with more academically inclined youngsters now seeking to acquire more practical skills.

The drive to allow 14- and 15-year-olds bored with the academic curriculum was first launched by David Blunkett when he was Secretary of State for Education four years ago. Only last month Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, said the motivation of many youngsters who had taken advantage of the scheme had increased - with the result that their academic performance had improved as well.

The scheme is seen as crucial in achieving goals set out in the inquiry report by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, to encourage more 16-year-olds to stay on in full-time education or training.

John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, told The Independent on Sunday: "I think the whole experience of this age group in colleges has been very positive. "We have 100,000-plus at the moment doing some form of work in colleges - mainly it is one day a week in which they can follow a course such as learning the construction trade.

"A more vocationally orientated programme of work is of considerable help in motivating a significant number of young people who would be disaffected or disengaged from the more formal curriculum."

He added: "There were some anxieties over potential discipline problems at first as these youngsters were disaffected - but the experiment seems to have worked well."

Ministers are hoping that youngsters will mix and match between qualifications, so brighter youngsters also spend some time studying for a vocational qualification. They argue this would help end the vocational/academic divide and stop the scheme being labelled as only for the bored and disaffected.

The AoC is making the scheme a centrepiece of its submission to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for more funding for further education colleges in his comprehensive spending review - details of which will be announced in the summer.

In the submission, it argues for an extra £1.9bn - a 30 per cent increase in present funding levels. It says: "Rising numbers of 14- to 16-year-olds are engaged in work-related learning. But the current funding provision is not keeping pace with social and commercial demand.

"Colleges are reaching the limits of their capacity. [The] AoC estimates that some 200,000 young people could profitably participate in this kind of programme for up to two days per week for a small incremental investment."