The lesson UK plc must heed

To compete worldwide it is vital that we improve our vocational training, says Sir Ron Dearing
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The Independent Online
The need to raise educational standards in this country has never been more pressing. We have set ourselves challenging national targets for the year 2000 but Germany and Japan have already surpassed them.

Our international competitiveness must be based on a well-trained, highly qualified and adaptable workforce. Our economic future lies in creating a highly educated, well-trained and adaptable workforce, matching the best in the world. We must be able to innovate, to challenge and to improve constantly and we must produce goods and services of the highest quality.

We must encourage all young people to achieve as much as they are capable of: today's under-achievers must be seen as an educational priority. This means raising the levels of achievement of large numbers of pupils and increasing the proportion of the over-16s in education and training.

That is why I welcomed the invitation to review the qualifications taken by 16- to 19-year-olds in schools and colleges and in work-based training. The report I published yesterday has nearly 200 recommendations, all designed to increase success rates and to maintain or increase the rigour of qualifications.

Some people may doubt whether these two things are compatible, whether it is possible to raise pass rates without lowering standards. I believe we have to find a way to make them so. But there is no point deceiving ourselves by success achieved through the depreciation of standards.

We must reduce the present high levels of wastage - those who start out on courses but who drop out or fail. Thirty per cent of students who start an A-level course never get an A-level. Even more fail to complete applied A-levels (General National Vocational Qualifications). The dropout rates for youth training are the highest of all.

We must start by getting young people on to the right programmes. They should be given disinterested advice by schools, parents and, in particular, the Careers Service. It would help if they could spend a term experiencing both kinds of A-level before choosing one.

This will not be enough, though. If we are going to achieve our targets, we have got to bring another fifth of our young people into post-16 study or training. I do not think we are going to achieve that by concentrating on A-levels. Practical skills and the ability to apply knowledge are as important as high-level intellectual and academic development.

One of our problems is that vocational courses - the applied A-level or GNVQ, and the National Vocational Qualification - are far less well known and understood than A-levels. A-levels have been around for 45 years; GNVQs for just three. We need to get the message across to parents, employers and university admission tutors. Renaming GNVQs as applied A-levels makes both their nature and their status plain. My report also proposes a recasting of Youth Training as part of a family of national awards to be known as National Traineeships.

Already the Modern Apprenticeship, which is quite new, attracts young people who would otherwise have taken A-levels. It is designed to get them up to the vocational equivalent of A-levels in three years. After that they can carry on working for the same firm or go on to higher education, perhaps through a sandwich course.

Now let me turn to the issue of rigour. One of the problems of the GNVQ has been that it is based on the principle, "If it moves, measure it". Assessment has run wild, and as a result quality has suffered. This needs to be put right. We need to take a new look at the role for tests and the adoption of new ways of assessing quality.

Another concern has been that the knowledge and understanding underpinning vocational qualifications have not been specified in the past. Teachers and trainers will be able to do a better job if there is clear guidance.

I have been equally concerned to ensure the rigour of A-levels. Employers want 16- to 19-year-olds to develop their general skills, in language and communication, in arithmetic, and in information technology. Those skills are fundamental.

What gave me greatest encouragement during this review was the realisation among so many employers that our future lies in a society committed to life-long learning and training. We must recognise that achievement in applied and vocational education is just as important, in terms of our national competitiveness, as academic achievement. Otherwise we shall simply be fooling ourselves if we achieve our national targets by allowing standards to slip.

The challenges of the next century bring the need for success into sharp focus. Education and training have never been more important.

The writer is chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.