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Bac bone in need of support

An English baccalaureate will not succeed without fundamental changes, says adult learning chief inspector David Sherlock

AS part of the radical rethink of education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds, an English baccalaureate is under consideration by Mike Tomlinson's working group.

It would provide a clear line of sight for all young people, who would have access to the same award at 18 or 19 with the only differentiation being the student's preferred learning style and chosen career path.

I certainly agree that there is a case for a radical overhaul - enhancing the qualification route for 14 to 16-year-olds and building a consensus covering general education, practical studies and occupational programmes.

All students could follow a broad range of subjects, including vocational courses, until the end of the secondary phase of education.

The advantages are well-rehearsed. It would offer a common terminology for all and encourage young people to stay in education until the age of 18 or 19 rather than dropping out at 16. A common award, like the French bac or the German abitur, would provide benefits for everyone and offer a clear ladder of progression to a common graduation with potential access to higher education.

Good news so far, but the extension of the occupational ladder of awards - which currently includes national vocational qualifications and Modern Apprenticeships - down to include 14 to 16-year-olds has significant barriers centred around some of the problems already present for young people of 16 or over who are already taking part in work-based learning.

The problems centre around the poor success rates of MAs, currently only 1 in 3. The learner tends to do well for the first year and moves on once they can find another job that offers more money - but without the qualification. Poor success rates also mirror the poor entry qualifications of learners. Eighty per cent of 16-year-old Foundation Modern Apprentices have poor literacy and numeracy skills.

It has been difficult to deliver the key skills teaching these young people need. Further problems are based on the lack of commitment among UK employers who find that the apprentice they have invested heavily in leaves as soon as they have reached a reasonable, marketable, level of confidence.

In Europe there is more of a "payback" for the investment a company has made in a young person.

The barrier to achieving the vital contribution of industry to occupational training is based on the fundamental shortcoming of the current awards on offer. If a British bac were introduced it would be the ideal opportunity to resolve many of the problems already present for post-16s doing NVQs and MAs.

Perhaps the most significant barrier to successful vocational routes as part of a bac is money. Throughout Europe occupational training is more expensive than a classical general education. It is often based on an easily accessible network of specialist secondary schools which the relatively small number of further education colleges in the UK may not be able to emulate. One answer may be to involve private apprentice training schools.

We must also consider whether a vocational qualification, embarked on at the age of 14, will give the young person the general education they need for a career rather than a job, a genuine choice among career directions and the flexibility to adapt to changing working demands over time. It is inconceivable to me that the significant elements of a general education should be omitted.

At this stage, what is the purpose of occupational training for young people? I do not see this initiative as being first and foremost aimed at training workers. In the earlier years, in particular, I see it as offering a different learning style; a different means of providing motivation for learners who are unwilling to attend traditional schools or who do not thrive there.

Occupational education would need to be practical; to be able to offer the whole secondary curriculum through different means; exciting to learners because of its relevance to their interests and to the ever-shifting adult world of work. Its connection to the business world must be real. And therein will lie challenges to traditional definitions and structures in the public education system.

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