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Fool's gold or certificates with currency?

Schools now have a statutory responsibility to prepare students for the world of work. But at the same time, the culture to quantify and evaluate almost everything has become paramount. The examining body OCR has made plans to combine these two driving forces - and the response to these plans has been varied.

The new qualifications from OCR have two key strands: l Preparation for employment involves work experience and aims to prepare the candidates for the work environment

* Career planning covers things such as writing application letters and CVs; filling out application forms; searching for positions; and considering and achieving career goals. The qualifications go from entry level 3 (below G grade at GCSE) to level 2 (GCSE A-C).

The tests for these qualifications comprise OCR-set and marked assignments along with employment-centre-assessed units. Work compiled in a portfolio with "evidence sheets" is submitted to OCR examiner-moderators for sampling. The qualifications come as unit certification or full qualification certification and work can be submitted at any time of the year.

But not everybody involved in work-related learning is convinced that it should lead to qualifications.

Ofsted has recognised this hesitation and is conducting a survey on how useful work-related qualifications are regarded. Containing, among other things, the views of 2,000 young people, it should make lively reading when published.

Many students welcome the chance to gain qualifications from work experience. One guinea pig was Lisa Kelly (pictured above, right). Now 16, Lisa is revelling in life as a trainee hairdresser. But memories of school still make her shudder and a scheme built around work-related learning was enough - if only just - to keep her in school.

"I think it's good to have certificates for this sort of thing," she says.

"It's not fair only to have them for academic work."

Students Ed Brown and Ben Dominey (pictured above), both 15 and following a special curriculum at St Peter's RC school in Guildford, Surrey, also welcome accreditation for work experience devised by the educational charity Trident Trust and Open College Network .

"I'm in favour of the qualification - it means there's more chance of going somewhere in life," said Ed, who is doing two days a week work experience at a health club. In time Ed would like to have an apprenticeship in carpentry; and Ben would like to do information and communication technology (ICT) at college.

Ben and Ed fall into a category identified by their headteacher, Chris Richardson, as "not disaffected, but sitting at the back of a classroom at risk of being left behind". Mr Richardson thinks the value is in the experience itself. "We can see their confidence building up," he says.

Trident Trust county manager Sue Sutton says the units are "appropriate and attainable units of accreditation, achievable in 30-hour blocks". But she admits there are problems with employers getting to grips with the qualifications. "We've found that some simply don't understand them," she said. "We have our work cut out explaining."

Up country in Yorkshire, Bob Jones, education business partnership manager for Bradford, agreed. "Without a piece of paper, maybe things can be pushed to the back of the timetable because it doesn't have rigour," he said. "But I don't think we should go down the route of being fixed on getting a piece of paper. I think it would ruin some of the flexibility, spontaneity and enthusiasm of doing it."

Keith Mitchell, Education Leeds Business Alliance manager, is also sceptical about "yet more pieces of paper".

"We have been working with OCR in Leeds to make teachers more aware," he says. "But trying to translate the value of the qualifications to some companies - particularly SMEs (small to medium enterprises)- there's no chance.

Gary Forrest, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority programme leader for work-related learning, says: "A possible disincentive is that the qualifications haven't been used in performance tables. That will change from Sept 2004 when league tables will be based around all qualifications.

"They are useful in making quality provision. They do provide a clear framework for outcomes. From my discussions, people seem very happy with them. Awarding bodies would not offer them unless there was a market.

Schools would not be offering them unless they thought there was a value."

Mr Forrest emphasises the need for a balanced approach: "One problem with careers education in the past was that without accreditation, students didn't seem to value it. Though I do think there's a danger that we spend too much time thinking in terms of qualifications rather than learning."

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