Despite years of decline, British manufacturing industry still employs about one in five of the workforce, with a similar proportion indirectly dependent on the sector. But only 2 per cent of the 161,000 students who have signed up for General National Vocational Qualifications over the past two years have opted for courses in manufacturing.
"The poor image of manufacturing is at least partly responsible for this low take-up," says Paddy O'Hagan, principal adviser for manufacturing at the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
The vision of "dark satanic mills" lingers on despite the virtual disappearance of the old smoke-stack industries and the growing importance of electronics, pharmaceuticals and, above all, the food industry, now the biggest in the manufacturing sector.
"People think that manufacturing is about getting your hands dirty," he adds. "I think that if you ask parents, in particular, they assume it is only about production, whereas if you go into any manufacturing company you will find that there are sales folk, buyers, accountants, and all the other types of people you would expect in a modern business. The GNVQ in manufacturing attempts to cover all these areas."
If the multidisciplinary nature of manufacturing is one of its potential attractions, it is also a reason why centres have not come forward in droves to offer GNVQs in the area. In schools and to a lesser extent further education colleges, there is no existing curriculum slot that translates easily into "manufacturing", and courses that can only be delivered by staff from a range of disciplines do not sit comfortably within traditional departmental structures.
Even a multidisciplinary team cannot deliver manufacturing GNVQs effectively without some outside help, which is why an "action programme" recently launched by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications is stressing the importance of industrial involvement.
This involvement could mean that students meet some of their course specifications on work experience. Links with local companies could help solve some of the problems with resources which have discouraged many centres from offering courses in manufacturing.
"Centres very often assume that they need industrial-strength machines, " says Paddy O'Hagan. "But the GNVQs in manufacturing, like other GNVQs, have been written to be delivered in schools and colleges. No school could cover all the possibilities in manufacturing. They need to supplement their own resources by working with local companies."
Developed by a group representing Understanding British Industry, the Teacher Placement Scheme, Young Enterprise and other players in business links between schools and industry, the NCVQ action programme aims to raise the proportion of students taking manufacturing to 7 per cent of all GNVQ students by 1999.
As part of the drive to meet this target the group has assembled a team of industrialists and teachers already delivering GNVQs in manufacturing who will design and run a series of trainer training events. Half a dozen of these events have already been held around the country for local education authority advisers, training and enterprise council staff and others with a staff development brief. In turn they will now be able to use in-service training material provided by the NCVQ to help local schools and colleges introduce courses in manufacturing.
In addition to this work on staff development, the group is producing promotional material to convince students, parents, teachers and careers staff that there are job opportunities in manufacturing. As Paddy O'Hagan points out, the industry may not be recruiting as many young people as it used to, but those it is taking on need to be highly skilled and flexible, to solve complex problems.
The NCVQ is also making efforts to promote the advanced GNVQ in manufacturing as an entry qualification to higher education. Exploratory talks with university admissions tutors and a conference planned for this summer could make it easier for advanced level manufacturing students to progress to degree courses.
But progression from intermediate to advanced level remains a problem. If no local college offers an advanced GNVQ in manufacturing, what does the proud holder of an intermediate level qualification do next? Collaboration between schools and college offers one solution to this problem. In Gwent (see story, left) there is already a "compact" between some of the county's secondary schools and the local tertiary college which guarantees places on advanced engineering courses to students who have completed the intermediate GNVQ in engineering.
The Gwent school-college project, which has already published teaching and assessment material for GNVQs in manufacturing, is promoting the compact idea. Project manager Gareth Rees says: "I think collaboration is the only way forward if we are looking at the whole 14-19 curriculum. It is the only way that all sectors can influence provision and ensure consistency and quality. "