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The good times will get even better

James Paice education and employment minister. Sixteen-year-olds today have an exceptionally wide range of opportunities. More and more young people are gaining better qualifications.

GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications are at record levels, and every 16 or 17-year-old who is not in full-time education is guaranteed a training place. Today's young people will become tomorrow's highly skilled and competitive work force.

This progress will continue unabated. I want to see even stronger academic performance, more robust vocational qualifications, careers services which help young people to make the best possible decisions on what and where to study, closer links between education and employers and more entrepreneurial activity in schools and colleges.

I want to focus on three key elements for success as we approach the Millennium. There must be a diverse structure in education and training; we need to cement existing good practice; and we shall encourage schools and colleges to be more responsive. The Government has already set the framework for these elements.

We have created a very diverse system. Young people may continue to study in school sixth forms, at further education colleges or they may take up work-based training. We know from experience that diversity and choice encourage higher standards.

We shall see that this diversity is not only maintained, but increased. For example, the new Education Bill contains important measures which will relax the current cumbersome requirements on grant-maintained schools which want to create new sixth forms. We shall also continue to promote the autonomy of all schools and colleges, as this contributes to excellence.

Diversity will also be promoted through a coherent qualifications framework, rigorously assessed and capable of offering opportunities for all young people.

We shall offer a new, innovative approach to vocational study in schools, colleges and the workplace.

Modern apprenticeships will become an increasingly successful route to the skills needed by tomorrow's managers and technicians.

Progress is also being made towards the creation of "entry-level" qualifications as was recommended by Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications.

The wider application of good practice is a proven means of improving performance. The innovatory work of one college or school can become, within a year or two, the standard for all. Excellence can become the norm, standards will rise and, as taxpayers, we all see better value for money.

Again, this Government has set an imaginative framework. We have encouraged schools to practise the benchmarking of their performances. In future they will set targets for achievement. I also envisage that, in future, we shall see further education colleges setting annual targets for performance.

Good and innovatory practice will be reflected in a number of important new initiatives. For example, we must tackle underachievement and a lack of motivation among young people.

We shall develop coherent local action, based on the best existing practice, to address the needs of these young people. We shall soon announce a major strategy to improve basic skills. In all these areas, the further education sector will be a key player.

I also want to see further education colleges become more responsive to the needs of their local communities, especially employers. I know, from my many visits to colleges, that there is scope for progress here. A college may be offering many and varied qualifications, some academic, some practical, but is the range of courses sufficiently responsive to local needs?

How do we know whether these qualifications are what employers want? How can we be sure that the local community is getting young people with the right blend of skills for its industry?

There are many ways of taking forward the whole issue of post-16 learning. We are developing new policies not only to promote participation and attainment, but also to ensure that it is relevant to future needs.

We shall shortly be publishing a White Paper in which these, and many other ideas, will be set out more fully.

We are planning now for the year 2000 and beyond, and we shall not fail to produce a framework in which opportunities for all young people are among the finest in the world.

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