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Esteem will drive the merits of vocation

Despite the disappointment of the educational world with the previous Government's response to Tomlinson, in the voc-ational field there is an important job to do.

There are big gains to be made in pursuing the prospect - held out by the 14-19 White Paper - of a coherent vocational progression route through to level 3 (A-level equivalent) and beyond. This needs now to be developed in a determined way, without re-fighting old battles ,while remaining alert to the pitfalls.

Two years ago, we published a discussion paper , showing how vocational ed-ucation had suffered from a multitude of initiatives resulting in a confusing array of qualifications, few of which encouraged participation to 18 or were recognised in the labour market.

We contrasted this with other countries which have built substantial vocational offerings in upper secondary education, successfully extending participation. Drawing on experience abroad, we proposed a limited number of national vocational programmes at advanced level as the centrepiece of the system.

We were encouraged when Tomlinson proposed something similar. And we were pleased that the White Paper confirmed this element of Tomlinson.

The central diagnosis - that despite good results by international standards at 15, we signally fail to build on them in participation at 16-19, and that this is principally due to a weak vocational offer - is surely right. Critics claim that developing vocational diplomas without parallel reforms to GCSE and A-levels will not give rise to parity of esteem.

But esteem has to be earned. It will be earned by offering stimulating program-mes that lead to good jobs and the possibility of higher education.

It cannot just be 'conferred' by making vocational courses academic look-a-likes, mimicking A-level sizes and conventions of difficulty.

Previous attempts to confer esteem by such devices have got in the way of constructing vocational routes with their own integrity.

And an obsession with possibilities to "mix and match" can likewise fragment vocational pathways.

Importantly, the White Paper recognised that vocational programmes be-fore 16 will need to preserve a careful balance between general education and the beginnings of vocational specialization. And there was a welcome emphasis on the facilities and vocational teachers that will be needed.

Both these aspects will need to be watched in implementation.

There will be further challenges:

* "The Sector Skills Councils which will lead design are new, and have many other tasks. They will need support, working from the outset with awarding bodies with a track record in their sectors and experience of involving practitioners, rather than labouring to create over-engineered specifications which awarding bodies then compete to deliver; * "Diplomas at levels 1 and 2 (GCSE equivalent), as well as an entry-level programme, may be too many for what will be a limited market at 14; many young people will want to have a crack at 'ordinary' GCSEs before making a vocational choice;

* "Young people who miss five good GCSEs by a small margin should be prime candidates for vocational studies at 16, and should certainly aspire to a level 3 diploma. A two-year programme to Level 3 might be too big a step for some, but they will not be attracted by having to 'return to Go', to take a level 2 diploma before they can access level 3. Instead they should take three years to a level 3 diploma, with a preparatory first year;

* "Preserving the distinctive nature of apprenticeship, while building in substantive links with the diploma;

* "Rigidity and overlap will ensue if diplomas have to be constructed entirely from 'building blocks' fabricated for different purposes. We hope that the the White Paper's examples are only illustrations. And we view with alarm the idea of incorporating the apparently countless combinations of units that the QCA proposes for adults in its Framework for Achievement;

* "Some diploma components should be externally assessed while, for others, internal styles will be more suitable. A balance must be designed from the start, or we shall have some diplomas with excessive testing and others with none. We cannot afford the 'guerilla war' on assessment that so impeded GNVQs;

* "Grading for whole diplomas is needed to provide stretch; if only individual components are graded, then employers and universities will concentrate on these, leading students to ignore other parts of their programme.

Tackling these issues will need determination, unity of purpose and goodwill. But the fact that we can now chart an agenda at all is an important step forward.

Hilary Steedman is a senior research fellow at the centre for economic performance of the LSE. John West is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Labour Market Studies and was previously head of vocational qualifications at the DfES.Finding our way: vocational education in England, 2003, Centre for Economic Performance Occasional Paper No. 18

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