ONE OF THE Government's model urban boroughs has rejected general national vocational qualifications and set up vocational GCSEs to motivate disaffected 14-year-olds.
Barking and Dagenham's initiative was revealed as schools chief inspector Chris Woodhead re-ign-ited controversy over post-14 education by suggesting to public school heads that some 14-year-olds should drop academic subjects bar English and maths to follow vocational courses.
The east London authority claims its courses - engineering, printing, catering, construction, electronics and industrial science - have led to better attendance, improved behaviour and a rise in results and staying-on rates at its eight secondary schools. This year 600 pupils are taking the courses, and this is expected to double.
They leave with the same qualifications as their peers - for example, art and design in printing, or design and technology for construction. The courses are largely adapted from existing GCSEs but have become more "hands-on" to make them more relevant to some students and give them extra skills.
Engineering - or industrial production - is an entirely new course, written with the Midlands Examination Group.
Barking has been inspired by the well-developed vocational courses in Switzerland and Holland and its teachers are regular visitors to Dutch schools.
Although still supported by the Government, the vocational GNVQs have so far failed to rival the GCSE either for popularity, or recognition among employers. Fourteen-year-olds are already allowed to drop French, technology or science to do one day a week of work-related study.
Nigel Sagar, general inspector for technology, said: "We're not expecting them to make career choices. We call them 'pre-vocational' courses. If it gives a route into a job, then great, but we're really trying to make these kids employable by giving them a bigger, better range of qualifications and some key skills."
Paul Grant, head of Robert Clack comprehensive, credited it with a "staggering" rise in pupils getting five good GCSEs from 16 per cent in 1996 to almost 40 per cent this year. He said: "Children are motivated. They behave well and respect each other and that's a prerequisite for learning."
Mr Woodhead, quoting DH Lawrence, told the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in Bristol this week that every teacher knew it was "worse than useless trying to educate at least 50 per cent of scholars".
"This might run against all politically correct tendencies, but there is a truth there that we forget at our peril," he said.
He added: "The challenge is to preserve the rigour of demands for the intellectual while developing worthwhile vocational courses for those who have gone as far for now at least as they are going to go."
Mr Woodhead accepted that parity of esteem would be hard to achieve. That is one reason why Barking and Dagenham says it developed its GCSEs - experiments with GNVQ part one led to pupils being labelled "sink groups".
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said schools were free to teach GCSEs as they chose provided they met its specifications. But it stoutly defended the part one GNVQ, which is due to be relaunched next year.