Have we forgotten vocational training?

From a speech delivered by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London

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A first-class education system must cater for all, and it must recognise what is valuable in the labour market. We know that the individual returns from education are high, and this reflects the needs of a large part of the modern economy. There are substantial financial rewards to individuals from studying for and obtaining qualifications. Employers will pay employees higher wages if they are more productive. It follows that well-designed education policies are an important component of the economic wellbeing of Britain.

A first-class education system must cater for all, and it must recognise what is valuable in the labour market. We know that the individual returns from education are high, and this reflects the needs of a large part of the modern economy. There are substantial financial rewards to individuals from studying for and obtaining qualifications. Employers will pay employees higher wages if they are more productive. It follows that well-designed education policies are an important component of the economic wellbeing of Britain.

The neglect of vocational and technical education has been a British disease. We have made substantial progress in developing better opportunities for vocational education, apprenticeships and practical work experience for young people, but we want to go further still.

The Government is determined that young people who want a career based on vocational and technical skills should be able to choose predominantly vocational programmes of study from age 14, including progression to an apprenticeship at age 16. We will strengthen and clarify the vocational pathways available for 14- to 16-year-olds so that this can happen. I appeal today to business people to back us in that endeavour, to take young people on as apprentices and to work with schools and colleges to bring vocational education into the mainstream where it belongs.

For those who want to progress directly from school into an apprenticeship at age 16, the learning that they already have done within their vocational GCSEs will be directly relevant, providing a sound foundation for the further development of their skills, knowledge and understanding in their apprenticeship programmes. In doing so, new vocational GCSEs and A-levels, and reformed Modern Apprenticeships, will raise the standards and status of vocational study and training - and draw together the worlds of education and work in ways that have never before been achieved.

One of the great failures of post-war education in Britain was its neglect of strong vocational routes. That mistake was not made in countries such as Germany. We have started to change that, and the process must continue over the years ahead. We must create a robust and respected world-class system of vocational and technical education to match the excellence of our academic education. This will help meet the need for skilled people in areas such as construction, IT and engineering, as well as the right number of skilled plumbers and electricians.

The Excellence in Cities programme is already beginning to transform secondary schools in some of our most challenging inner-city areas, providing a diversity of support, such as learning mentors, and a variety of opportunities to learn. We have seen that those improvements benefit those from groups who traditionally underachieved - those from unskilled family backgrounds and most ethnic minority communities. As a result, standards are rising faster than the national average. Our reforms over the next five years will build on this programme and introduce greater choice and diversity, allowing more opportunities to specialise.

After leaving school, young people with the aptitude and ability for work-based learning will be offered a new entitlement to a Modern Apprenticeship place, provided they have met the right entry criteria. We will meet our pledge to abolish the final residue of old, failed Youth Training by ensuring that, from September 2002, all young people in training are on Foundation and Advanced Modern Apprenticeships, or pre-apprenticeship programmes that build in decent learning progression.

The standards of apprenticeships will be raised across the board, bringing work-based vocational learning into the new century, and ensuring that employers can recruit the skilled people they need.

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