Colleges may need to take many more 14-year-olds to help provide relevant vocational options for all pupils, the education charity Edge has said.
As part of a manifesto to improve vocational education, the charity said pupils should have an individual mix of theoretical and practical learning from the age of 14, with the practical element taking place in specialist facilities with experienced staff. This could be in either schools or colleges, but it acknowledged that colleges have the advantage of experience in teaching many vocational subjects.
Andy Powell, chief executive of Edge, said: "FE is very well placed because it has more teaching staff with a background of working in industry with practical skills.
"We need more 14-year-olds having access to the right teachers and facilities for vocational subjects."
Colleges themselves have already called for a bigger role in teaching younger teenagers, arguing that for the new 14-19 diplomas to succeed, they should be taught more often in colleges.
David Collins, president of the Association of Colleges, was known for his opposition to an earlier attempt to bring under-16s into colleges, arguing the increased flexibility programme was being used to offload difficult students.
However, students choosing to study in college because they are motivated to learn practical skills is seen differently by the association.
Employers should also have more control over the content of vocational courses than they do with the diplomas, Edge said.
Its manifesto said education for some 14-year-olds should resemble diploma courses in having a balance of practical and theoretical learning, while others pursue almost wholly practical courses similar to a young apprenticeship.
It called for 16-year-olds to be able to specialise, switch courses or enter employment with training. At 18, it said, students should be able to choose degree-level study at institutions endorsed by employers.
Before teenagers reach the stage when they can choose further education, they should have a broad curriculum in school, the charity said, dropping the key stage tests, which tend to encourage teachers to maintain a narrow focus on literacy, numeracy and science. To replace the tests, students should have an individual profile setting out attainment, skills and aptitude, to help them choose what courses to follow.
Mr Powell said Britain was probably the worst country in the world for failing to appreciate the importance of vocational learning. "In terms of the split between academic and vocational study, and the support for high quality practical learning, I think we are behind most nations," he said.
"I think it is realistic and achievable to change that, but it is going to take a few years and a significant amount of hard work and investment."
In Sweden and the Netherlands, all vocational studies are taught in specialist institutions, rather than tacked on to general or academic courses. Edge argues that this contributes to their higher retention rate of students after 16.
Six steps to improve vocational education:
- A broad curriculum up to age 14, with opportunities to develop skills and experience a range of options.
- SATs replaced by an individual profile of attainment, skills and aptitudes, which would be used by the pupil, parents and teachers to choose a pathway post-14.
- At 14, all pupils, in addition to continuing a broad curriculum including English, maths and science, would be supported in choosing a pathway from a variety matched to their interests and abilities, each with a balance of theoretical and practical learning.
- Students on practical and vocational courses would be taught in specialist facilities and by appropriately experienced staff.
- At 16, students would choose to specialise within their pathway, change to another pathway or enter employment with training.
- Beyond 18, students would have the opportunity to study at degree level in a centre of vocational excellence endorsed by employers.