John Brennan: We must start laying the Tomlinson groundwork

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The Independent Online

Mike Tomlinson's report on 14-19 education has given us much food for thought. While media attention focused on his four-stage diploma, his proposals to improve vocational education may prove just as important. This summer's spending review is an ideal opportunity for the Government to prepare the ground.

Existing initiatives have been more successful than the Government anticipated. Instead of the 40,000 14- and 15-year-olds ministers had expected would spend a day or two a week in college or the workplace, 100,000 pupils are now involved in such programmes. Ofsted says that those involved are better motivated and achieving more as a result.

Given the enthusiasm for such partnerships between schools, colleges and employers, we expect the numbers to rise to 200,000 by 2008. This would allow one in six young people to avail themselves of this option, and would chime with plans to create junior apprenticeships, in which young people would mix core studies in English, maths and computing with learning a trade.

But we must ensure that these courses are not just for those whom schools no longer wish to teach. To be successful, apprenticeships must be a high quality option available to all - and freely chosen by all who can benefit.

It is not just academically weak students who prefer vocational to academic pathways. The proposed new diploma recognises this by enabling young people to work towards a modern apprenticeship as well as the replacement for GCSEs and A-levels.

This will not work unless the Government creates the right environment. We must make sure that such provision is properly funded. An extra £146m a year will be needed by 2007-08 to cater for the expected numbers. This funding must be targeted at those colleges and employers providing the extra provision, and not just schools where students are enrolled. Then we need to ensure that every young person who can benefit from vocational education has the chance to do so. The Connexions service responsible for careers advice devotes most of its time to helping those young people who are not in education, training or work. They need that help and support. But there is a resulting gap for the majority of young people, who don't always get independent advice from schools about their options.

Schools have a vested interest in keeping students in their sixth forms to avoid being penalised by the Learning and Skills Council. But many young people would benefit from the wider options offered in sixth-form or FE colleges. Similarly, instead of seeing work-related learning courses for 14-16-year-olds as a way of getting troublemakers and truants out of school, we need to make sure that every teenager with an aptitude for vocational education has access to independent advice to choose the best option.

To be fair, not only schools treat vocational as second-best. Too many parents would regard it as a sign of failure if it was suggested that their child go on such a course. We need to show parents that vocational success is as valid as academic achievement, giving credit where it is due. Performance tables and inspection reports should reflect the partnerships that are delivering results, not just the school where a pupil is enrolled.

Mike Tomlinson's report has rightly been welcomed as offering the opportunity for a much-needed fresh start in 14-19 education. He has published a framework that could serve schools and colleges well for many years. But to grasp that opportunity for vocational education and apprenticeships, the Government must start to lay the groundwork now.

The writer is chief executive of the Association of Colleges