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Employers prefer academic study

Employers still put faith in academic rather than vocational qualifications when recruiting young people even though they think A-levels are less relevant to the workplace.

A national survey of employers carried out by training and enterprise councils reveals an alarming level of dissatisfaction with the present qualifications framework.

Employers are found to have little or no understanding of general national vocational qualifications and many - particularly from smaller organisations - are still confused over national vocational qualifications.

It means most have little confidence in GNVQs and many believe NVQs are not yet fully respected, according to the Gloucestershire TEC survey for Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16 to 19 qualifications.

Only the A-level was found to be well-understood and respected by employers, yet the vast majority agreed it left young people ill-equipped to start work.

Evidence of pressure for change from employers comes a week after MPs called for a shake-up of the A-level system, prompted partly by a desire to raise the status of vocational qualifications. The Commons select committee on education suggested a new, broader award, bringing all existing qualifications under a national framework. The recommendation sits closely with the proposals expected to appear in Sir Ron's review, due at Easter.

Uncertainty over GNVQs and NVQs led one group of employers questioned to admit to converting all job applicants' qualifications to a GCSE or GCE "equivalent" grade.

GCSEs, particularly in maths, English and sciences, were identified as being the most important qualifications when recruiting 16 to 23-year-olds. A-levels were seen as a reliable national measure of ability.

Yet despite this high regard, employers admitted A-levels were the least in tune of all qualifications with workplace needs. Most saw them only as a stepping stone to higher education and not relevant to work at a junior level. Those young people starting work immediately after gaining the qualifications were found to lack practical skills and experience.

Employers highlighted a glaring shortage of young people with the personal qualities and skills needed in the workplace. Many said new recruits found work a culture shock, and were concerned over low standards of literacy and numeracy.

Most of those questioned thought schools should take on the responsibility for developing students' "work-ready" skills, though they were split over the need for a separate qualification. Some called for a special qualification similar to a wide-ranging GNVQ, but others felt that might mean too little time spent on academic study, and called for such skills to be integrated into the GCSE and A-level curriculum.

Employers agreed that work skills should be developed in conjunction with business through improved work experience programmes, joint school-industry projects and teacher placements.

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