Framework with flexibility

By its own admission, the 14 to 19 Green Paper is only the latest attempt to raise the standard and status of vocational education in a long line stretching back 60 years. But achieving that goal has never been more important. It is not just that we need more skilled labour. The future of a fair and civil society rests upon keeping more young people learning beyond 16 - or before in too many cases.

Key stage 4 needs to be the start of something rather than an end. The Green Paper is stronger on vision and exhortation than on details about how matriculation diplomas or distinction grades will work. But what it provides is a framework. The real development that follows must be from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top.

Nor should every detail of that framework be taken as rigid. The Government's job at this stage is to square various circles. It has to create coherence across a wide range of courses and qualifications and yet at the same time leave room for flexibility to motivate and meet particular needs. It has to increase access and parity of esteem while defending innovation from accusations of dumbing-down.

In essence, Estelle Morris is in the business of re-branding; a marketing exercise that must appeal both to 14-year-olds who reject schooling and university admissions tutors; to captains of industry and the opinion writers of right-wing newspapers. It is hardly surprising if at this stage she pays more attention to the customers than to the providers.

But it is in schools and colleges that vision must be turned into reality. Their consolation must be that there is less prescription, not more. Timetables are realistic for once with development phases - and time to rethink contentious details - built in.

On 14 to 19 the partnerships of the education service - the teachers, schools, colleges, curriculum and qualification devisers, local authorities and learning and skills councils - have a chance to show what collectively they can do. Their vision, initiative and leadership must now make itself felt once again, for all our sakes.

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