Scottish schools do not meet the needs of a third of their pupils, according to the man who shaped North Lanarkshire's programme of vocational education.
Secondary education in Scotland is not truly comprehensive because it fails to provide opportunities for all youngsters and all talents, says Michael O'Neill, who was director of education in North Lanarkshire until 2007. The new curriculum, with its emphasis on Highers as the "gold standard", remains geared towards academic pupils, he argued.
In spite of the rhetoric coming out of the Scottish Government that children should leave school with skills for learning, life and work, there was "a grave danger", he warned, that vocational education was "going nowhere" except in a few isolated places.
Speaking at a vocational education and training conference in Edinburgh, Mr O'Neill said: "Comprehensive schools were not and are not comprehensive because they only accommodate 70 per cent of youngsters, and for the other 30 per cent they are not appropriate."
Schools needed to offer genuine choice, he said, instead of constrained choice. Currently, pupils were deciding if they wanted to study technical or home economics when sometimes neither option was appropriate. "It would have been like offering Kenny Richey the lethal injection or the electric chair - it's not much of a choice," he said.
Schools should be offering vocational options on-site, not in colleges, he continued. This was the only way vocational education could be made available to all pupils, instead of just a few. It was also the only way to make vocational education sustainable, he said, pointing out it could cost as little as Pounds 15,000 to convert an empty classroom.
"Are schools for all people or just the academic pupils?" he asked. "Schools can't afford to bus thousands of pupils round the country. When transport costs dried up, the courses would dry up."
Pupils should make choices from a mix of academic and vocational options at the end of S1, he said, preventing them becoming disaffected in the early years of secondary.
At the end of S3, Mr O'Neill suggested, there should be an exam which included literacy and numeracy but also tested other areas to enable pupils to make informed decisions about which courses to continue. In S4-6, more time could be devoted to active, innovative and enjoyable learning.
"It's time to introduce in Scotland a Scottish school leavers certificate, a combination of vocational awards, along with the new literacy and numeracy qualifications, and other awards like ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) and Duke of Edinburgh," he said.
Meanwhile, North Lanarkshire Council's vocational education programme, described in last year's OECD report on Scottish schools as "outstanding", was wrestling with "resource issues", according to Christine Pollock, the council's director for learning and leisure, who also spoke at the conference.
The council was being forced to look at "creative ways" of paying for courses, which cost Pounds 900,000 a year, she said. Funding had been secured for the next two years but, beyond that, alternative sources would have to be found.
The Scottish Government, however, argued that all young people would be "entitled" to develop vocational skills. It had invested Pounds 40 million through the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland to support vocational education, a spokeswoman said.
Sweden has received international recognition for placing academic and vocational training on an equal footing, but now faces a shake-up in its vocational approach to make it less "challenging", the conference heard.
It is also to introduce a national examination at the end of upper secondary for the first time in nearly 40 years, and introduce more inspections which will see schools come under the microscope every three years.
The country's post-16 upper secondary schools deliver both academic and vocational courses with the same core subjects - Swedish, English, maths, natural science and social subjects.
But, under plans still to be approved by parliament, different core skills are to be introduced for the two groups of students by 2011. "We have had lots of problems with these core subjects because they have been taught in a theoretical, academic way," Ann Carlson-Ericsson of Sweden's National Agency for Education told the conference in Edinburgh.