Leading Article: Vital skills for jobs and self-esteem

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The Independent Online
RECENT emphasis on practical training in schools is a welcome development in an education system that has traditionally stigmatised and failed less academic pupils. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications is striving to ensure that budding electricians receive schooling as appropriate to their needs as Latin is to would-be classicists.

Everyone should benefit: pupils should emerge with self-esteem and vital skills, employers should gain better-trained recruits, the dole queues should contain fewer teenagers and Britain should eventually be better equipped to compete in the global economy.

Yet these laudable ambitions are not being realised as the education system resists pressure to correct its bias in favour of academic achievement. Research published yesterday by Professor Alan Smithers, of Manchester University, suggests that new vocational qualifications (NVQs and GNVQs) are second- rate, with no clear curriculum and inadequate assessment. They lack substance and rigour and could easily lose the respect of all concerned.

Employers are confused because qualifications do not distinguish between the abilities of those that have passed, so it is difficult to separate the best from the mediocre. They are also dissatisfied because numeracy and literacy training are not part of the programme. Teachers have been given little or no guidance as to what they should actually teach, which means that courses vary greatly in quality. Not surprisingly, failure rates are high. Young people could easily become disenchanted. Why work hard if employers come to dismiss claims that vocational qualifications are equivalent to A-levels?

The Government, which has been so diligent in defining content and standards for the national curriculum, should impose the same rigour on vocational courses. Employers, trade unions and educationists need to agree what is needed for someone to acquire skills as a hairdresser, plumber or electrician. Achievement should be assessed externally.

There must also be real incentives for young people to take these vocational qualifications rather than leave school and seek jobs with little training. If various trades had registration systems that required the new qualifications, young people would be more inclined to stay on at school.

Vocational qualifications could at last equalise the importance of practical and academic training in schools and benefit millions of young people. Ministers should listen to criticism of an initiative that needs remedial action and should not be allowed to fail.