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'English snobbery' won't sway me, says Johnson

ALAN JOHNSON, the Edu-cation Secretary, has blamed the public's low opinion of vocational education on "English snobbery".

He told the education select committee last week that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland did not share the view that academic qualifications were a mark of the brightest children. "This is an English snobbery about academic qualifications being superior to vocational ones," he said.

Mr Johnson, who is tipped to be deputy to Gordon Brown when Tony Blair steps down, said this snobbery needed to be confronted to ensure the success of the new vocational diplomas. "Then we will get people taking this course as a route into higher education as well as into employment,"

he said.

The select committee was questioning Mr Johnson on the changes to the 14-19 education system. Its chairman, Barry Sheerman, criticised broadcasters who, for the first time in six years, ignored the Education Secretary's attendance because the discussion centred on skills.

Mr Johnson praised the improvements in colleges and work-based learning. He said: "With FE, we have gone up from 27th in the world to 20th (in staying-on rates). This week we have seen that success rates, down to 59 per cent in 2002, are now 77 per cent, having exceeded the target by one per cent two years early. This is part of everyone raising their game."

He said comments attributed to him, that diplomas "may go horribly wrong"

and become the equivalent of secondary moderns compared to grammar schools, were taken out of context. They were the biggest educational reforms being attempted anywhere in the world, he said, and he was only acknowledging the scale of the challenge.

Fiona Mactaggart, MP, warned that schools and colleges in partnerships to provide diplomas might compete to keep students to maintain the funding that came with them.

Mr Johnson joked: "Partnership has been defined as burying mutual loathing in the pursuit of government money. But I think there are remarkably few tensions."

He said the funding system might have to be changed in the future to assure institutions received their fair share of cash. "But in the process of moving into this brave new world, I couldn't be more pleased with the way partnerships are working. The interests of the students must come first,"

he added.

Rob Wilson, MP, questioned the plans to extend the age of compulsory education or training to 18.

Mr Johnson said: "It's time to stop the mixed messages that it's increasingly important to stay in education up to 18 but on the other hand say it's OK to leave two years early."

The Government expected staying-on rates to be 90 per cent by the time the new leaving age came into force, he said, so they would only have to address the reluctance to stay in education of a small minority.

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