Leading article: A-level grades are not the only concern

Vocational training remains fragmented, inconsistent and poorly understood

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The impact of the Coalition's shake-up of higher education is starting to be felt. The proportion of top-marks A-levels has dropped for the first time in two decades following a crackdown on "grade inflation". And with students facing up to £9,000 of annual fees from September, applications to English universities are significantly lower than last year. Both are a step in the right direction – but only if non-academic education and training can take up the slack.

After year upon year of ever-improving results – even as criticisms of school-leavers' educational standards grew sharper – the entire A-level qualification system was losing credibility. That the number of papers meriting an A or A* has finally fallen is therefore a landmark moment, and one that can only be welcomed. That said, a single 0.4 per cent drop from one year to the next will mean nothing if results immediately swing back upwards again; 2012 must be the start of a trend if the dip is to be meaningful.

Lower grades will, of course, mean that fewer conditional offers of university places will be met. But dire predictions of thousands of prospective students missing out should be treated with caution. Many of those just a whisker under their required grades may well receive an offer anyway; and with all of this year's students suffering the same "disadvantage", it is hard to justify claims of unfairness.

In fact, the competition for university places is less intense than usual this year: applications are currently down by around seven per cent as potential students weigh the benefits of a degree against the debts they will rack up in the process. But with universities across the spectrum still over-subscribed, the Coalition's controversial trebling of tuition fees does not appear to have devastated the intake in the way that doom-mongers predicted, even taking account of double-dip recession and high youth unemployment.

Efforts to allay concerns that higher fees would turn Britain's universities back into the preserve of the wealthy few also appear to be working. Although it is too soon to be complacent, admissions group Ucas has indicated that school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds are not disproportionately represented among those choosing not to apply.

All well and good. But there is so much more to be done before the Government can rest on its educational laurels. Indeed, much of the progress so far has focused only on changes in schools and universities. Parallel advances have not been made in developing the skills of those who will be squeezed out of a more rigorous academic system.

In fairness, there have been some efforts to address Britain's long-standing weakness when it comes to vocational training – the £1bn "jobs fund" to help pay for short-term placements for young people, for example, and the creation of an extra 200,000 apprenticeship places. But the numbers are still small by comparison with the size of the challenge.

There is huge pent-up demand among employees, particularly given the perilous economic conditions. According to the National Apprenticeship Service, July saw a record-breaking 100,000 applications, seven for every vacancy even with available places also at an all-time high. But the Government-commissioned Holt review concluded that many companies still view placements as suitable only for the "shop floor".

For all the tweaks, vocational training remains fragmented, inconsistent and often poorly understood. Meanwhile, employers routinely complain of their inability to find staff with the expertise they need. Attempts to tighten up academic education are laudable enough. But they are only half of the equation.

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