National Curriculum: Vocational approach is put into practice: Ngaio Crequer visits a school offering a varied diet of job-related studies

FOR ALAN COX, 15, lovingly repairing a Ford Fiesta, there is clearly no divide between the academic and the vocational.

'Maths plays a major role in motor mechanics. It helps me, for example, to understand the volume and capacity of vehicle engines. In English too, I find out the meaning of a word like 'distributor' which I have to understand.'

Alan is taking a GCSE in motor vehicle studies, together with mathematics, English, science, geography and business studies. He hopes eventually to land a job in engineering. He attends Ashmead School, in Reading, Berkshire, which for 40 years has offered job-related courses alongside its traditional academic diet. It succeeds, partly because the school has a longer school week than some others.

Yesterday Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, said he wanted to cut to 60 per cent the time taken up by the compulsory curriculum for 14- to 16- year-olds. The remaining time could be used, if pupils wished, to study vocational courses.

Tyrone Turner, head of vocational studies, is a teacher who can straddle the divide: he used to teach history, but before that was a cost accountant for an American company that made and sold bulldozers. 'They said to do my job properly I had to know all about diesels, so they trained me. I am using that expertise now,' he said.

The motor vehicle course is very popular and attracts students of all abilities from the 600-pupil comprehensive. 'There is little difference between them when it comes to demonstrating their hands-on skills,' Mr Turner said. 'The only difference is that some children are better at writing down what they have done.'

Ashmead has re-opened its junior school of building as a result of pressure from the local construction industry. Pupils are selected according to their aptitude and ability in crafts. Alongside the national curriculum, including technology, they take National Vocational Qualifications, General National Vocational Qualifications, and GCSEs. In the sixth form they can study GNVQ at a higher level, and combine this with A-levels. Or they can join the building department at Reading College, which has special links with the school. Successful students are virtually guaranteed employment because of the very strong support for the school from the construction industry.

Colin Hawkins, the building instructor, is a former Ashmead pupil. He started his working life as a bricklayer, became a site manager, lectured at Reading College, rejoined industry, and has now returned to teach. His pupils are given practical experience in bricklaying, plumbing, painting and decorating. Some will also study carpentry and joinery, electrical work, and technical drawing. 'We are looking to produce tradespeople, but beyond that people who will go into management or teaching,' Mr Hawkins said. 'There is a demand across the country for courses like these. It is not something offered at school very often.'

Ashmead was a boys' school, but went co-educational two years ago. Three girls from other schools will be joining the sixth form next year specifically to take motor vehicles studies.

Now oversubscribed, the school has in the past beaten off one attempt to close it, another to merge it with a girls' school. Forty per cent of the pupils have a reading age of 9 or below at the age of 11.

'Of last year's fifth year, 11 people had a reading age of six when they came to us at the age of 11. But betweeen them they got 46 GCSEs,' Michael Hockley, the headteacher, said. 'Our A-level points score last year was the highest of any comprehensive in Reading, and all of last year's Upper Sixth went on to university.'

(Photograph omitted)