Work-related courses common in Europe: Fran Abrams looks at the continental alternatives to academic studies

BRITAIN is almost the only European country where pupils cannot take vocational courses before they are 16, Sir Ron Dearing's report on slimming down the national curriculum suggests.

Instead of taking the full range of national curriculum subjects up to 16, pupils will in future be able to keep 40 per cent of their timetable free for vocational subjects or for further academic courses such as classics or a second modern language.

Sir Ron, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has recommended that his officials should work with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to work out the ways in which such courses could be developed. They could take the form of General National Vocational Qualifications, or GNVQs, already being piloted in schools with 14- to 16 year-olds, or they could be more job-specific courses already offered by bodies such as City and Guilds.

GERMANY is often held up as a shining example of how vocational education can work. Pupils in Germany's non-selective schools take practical courses in craft, marketing, design, and social, economic and political aspects of work. They must also take final exams in German, maths, science and usually a modern language.

In the NETHERLANDS, maths, science and Dutch are compulsory up to 16 for all pupils in non-selective and vocational schools as well as in those for the most academic pupils. In the vocational schools, pupils spend about half their time on practical subjects, but these are only attended by a small proportion of pupils.

In FRANCE, some pupils go to pre-apprenticeship centres from 13, where they take strongly vocational courses. However, these centres are regarded as 'sink' schools for under-achievers, and often take pupils who have failed a year at school and have been held back.

In BELGIUM, the education system is mainly comprehensive, but pupils can choose to enter a vocational stream. Upper secondary education is divided into general, technical, vocational and art education, aimed at entering either employment or higher education.

In ITALY, pupils can choose to take vocational courses from the age of 14, when they can leave school if they wish. Italy has some independent technical and vocational schools, mainly run by the church, which have fairly good reputations.

In DENMARK, pupils usually take academic courses until the compulsory school leaving age of 16, but after this they can choose to stay on either in a vocational or in an academic school.

GREECE still has a school leaving age of 14, but lower secondary education goes on until 16 for most pupils. There are vocational schools for pupils aged 14 and over.

In PORTUGAL, pupils could leave school at 12 until recently, but now they stay on until 15. Pupils can choose between academic, vocational and technical schools. Technical schools tend to have a higher status than vocational schools, which teach craft-based subjects.

SPAIN introduced a national curriculum in 1989, and when it is fully in place, all pupils will have to study academic subjects until they are 16. Vocational options which used to be available for those aged 14 and over will no longer exist.

Martin McLean, lecturer in comparative education at the University of London Institute of Education, said Sir Ron's strategy was risky in view of the fact that vocational courses had in the past been undervalued across Europe. There was little academic or economic justification for introducing such courses in schools, he said, but they had been successful elsewhere in keeping non-academic pupils in education.

He said: 'It is a risk, but our problems with low achievers are so substantial that I think it may be a risk worth taking on motivational grounds.'