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Can Sir Ron help to close such a skills gap?

ALL OUR FUTURES Channel 4 Video Pounds 16.95 inc postage HopeLine Video PO Box 515 London SW15

No, this video is not about the Dearing report - it is unlikely that a video production company could get something out so quickly - but it is highly relevant to the debate about post-16 education and training that the recent recommendations reflect.

Those who are less than ecstatic about Sir Ron's plans, particularly with regard to NVQs and GNVQs, will no doubt find in the 45-minute video a great deal to agree with. This is especially true if the viewer feels that GNVQs are under-powered, lacking in real vocational content and ritualistic as regards assessment procedures. This is, in fact, the key message of the video.

All Our Futures has a telling sub-title - "A Disaster of Epic Proportions?" It is a Dispatches programme which triggered a national debate on training. The video, though late to have general release, is timely, coinciding with Sir Ron Dearing's review.

It documents the work of a team of educationists who attempt to compare our training programmes with those in France, Germany and Holland.

The picture they bring back is a bleak one from this country's point of view. On the Continent, students study longer and learn more basic technical knowledge, while vocational courses have a reasonable level of status. The team's evidence appears to illustrate an enormous "skills gap" between us and the other nations studied.

There are some very crisp comments from industrialists and educationists from all the countries involved. There is a clear sense that NVQs and GNVQs simply do not make the grade in their present form. The director of Ford of Europe, for example, points out that his company mainly trains its employees through their "in-house" programmes, and that these have to run alongside NVQs and GNVQs because these schemes are not seen as having high enough quality. A range of courses is scrutinised and ours come out very badly in comparison.

The research team, headed by Professor Alan Smithers, concludes that our approach to vocational education is "idiosyncratic and bizarre". On GNVQs, the team suggests they are "lightweight, ideology-ridden and weak on general education". A representative from NCVQ attempts to counter these views but, frankly, is not convincing.

People will need time to digest the Dearing Report. They will then want to judge how well Sir Ron's recommendations would help to create a culture of participation in post-16 education and training, and also to what degree his ideas would address the equally "thorny" issues of quality and retention.

The "Smithers view" is clearly outlined in this video and it has been reinforced by the professor in the pages of The TES ("What's in a new name is not nearly enough", March 3). On the other hand, many will support the views expressed by commentators such as Dr Joan Solomon defending GNVQs. ("That gold standard is somewhat tarnished", TES, March 22). Though it is three years old, this video still raises key questions about our education system.

As the key political parties appear to be cautiously in favour of the Dearing Report, educationists should perhaps be cautious! Does it make too many compromises? All Our Futures will stimulate debate on teacher training courses, on governing bodies, among parents, and between teachers in schools and colleges-and we must have a broad debate. Perhaps the key question is "Does Dearing really answer the very worrying issues raised in this video?"

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