If pupils want vocational training, let them have it

From a speech given by the Secretary of State for Education to the Institute for Public Policy Research, in London

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In essence, our approach has been based on two paradigms. The first is the balance between pressure and support. The system has important pressures: inspection, exams, targets, and tougher measures to remove incompetent teachers. They all focus schools on achievement. But in recent years they have been balanced by greater investment, improvements in school buildings and extra teachers and teaching assistants. I have no doubt we need more funding in the future, but there is a proper balance now.

The second is the balance between central and local: what we have also called "intervention in inverse proportion to success". Contrary to mythology, we have decentralised far more than we have centralised in education. We have certainly insisted on higher literacy and numeracy standards, but more generally the curriculum has greater flexibilities, including for those aged 14 and up who wish to pursue vocational routes. That approach will need to be extended radically in a second term.

The debate about secondary schools, in particular, has often been about grammar schools and comprehensives. Yet the real world is moving rapidly on from those old debates. That is where the specialist school model is so important.

The improvements in secondary schools in our most deprived areas need much earlier action if they are to have any chance of success. Excellence in Cities is improving standards faster than the average. Notably, the Youth Cohort Study found also that the biggest improvements at GCSE were taking place with black, many Asian and working class students, although Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils were still falling behind.

Today's schools have to respond to the needs and demands of pupils and parents. They must reflect specific needs and meet individual aspirations. Otherwise they will be superseded. The idea that people can or should be forced into some ideological straitjacket has no relevance in today's world. Those who use public services are, rightly, no longer simply prepared to accept whatever is provided, regardless of its quality or ethos. The more affluent we become, the more we expect and demand in all areas of our lives.

Specialist schools offer the prospect of real choice and higher standards to parents in inner cities. This is choice based on what a school can offer as well as its exam results and reputation. We have trebled the number of specialist schools since 1997 and will increase their number during the next parliament. This Government has encouraged and given practical support to diversity, in a way that no previous administration has done. In the next parliament, with more church and specialist schools, we have the chance to develop the modernisation of secondary education in earnest.

But as we do so, we must ensure that we recognise the potential to do more to foster individual talent. We don't get much credit for it, but the Gifted and Talented programme in urban schools in Excellence in Cities is changing the way in which comprehensives regard their brightest youngsters. Ofsted's latest report also found that most secondaries now set in key subjects like Maths and Science.

That is why I see no good reason why those students with a vocational aptitude should not have the chance to do a programme of study leading on to an apprenticeship at 16. Around 50,000 pupils a year already take vocational courses. If there are three or four times that number who wish to do so, we must make sure they have that chance. Vocational GCSEs and Modern Apprenticeships offer the right qualifications structure to enable it to happen. This, together with an emphasis on the service meeting the needs of the individual rather than the individual fitting in with the service, is part of the greater diversification demanded by parents and accepted by the Government.

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