New schooling for the less academic?

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THE GOVERNMENT is planning a new course in technical education for 14- to 19-year-olds of lower academic ability to try to improve workforce skills.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, is chairing a party including ministers from the education and employment departments which is examining three alternative routes through school from the age of 14: academic, mixed, and vocational. Members are discussing a system incorporating a revised A-level for the more academic pupils; the new national vocational qualifications launched last September which combine technical and academic elements; and an innovative third route for the remaining under-achievers, leading to a work qualification.

The group is expected to report by the end of the month. An employment department official said the underlying debate concerned whether education should aim mainly at an academic elite, or a better-trained workforce.

Ministers are considering whether some pupils who fail A-levels would do better taking the national vocational qualification level 3 when it is widely available. The employment department argues that this would provide industry with badly needed skilled technicians.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Manchester University, said: 'There is a territorial battle between Employment, which favours a common course up to the age of 14 only, and Education, which is bound by the national curriculum up to 16. But the Government has been flirting with the idea of technical A-levels and it should be possible to square technical GCSEs with the national curriculum.'

Sir Christopher Ball, of the Royal Society of Arts, said: 'Perhaps 60 per cent would take GNVQs and 20 per cent A-levels. The remaining 20 per cent will include those who can only be persuaded to study for a qualification directly related to a job. They need to be motivated early - 16 is too late.'