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Putting the pieces together

LSC regional director Margaret Coleman tells Joe Clancy about Yorkshire and Humberside's plansfor low-achieving post-16s

In years gone by, youngsters in Yorkshire who left school with no qualifications were able to find employment as "fettlers".

Fettling was the skill of knocking the rough edges off the metals used in the steel industry, one of the county's main employers. It did not require the ability to read or write.

Low-skilled jobs in the steel and textile trades, or the mining and fishing industries, soaked up those who left school with below average qualifications.

Today, those traditional industries are only a fraction of their previous size. But the Yorkshire and Humberside region still has the highest proportion of school leavers with fewer than five A* to C GCSE passes.

The challenge for Margaret Coleman, regional director for the Learning and Skills Council, is to ensure that post-16 education remains in fine fettle to deal with the problem.

She said: "We are the worst region in the country for level two attainment at 16, with 46 per cent achieving five A* to C grades against the national average of 53 per cent.

"It is a huge issue for us that more than half of young people have not got the level of qualifications expected at the end of their statutory education.

"That means we have 54 per cent of our young people who are not ready to benefit from A-level education, and we have to consider what kind of opportunities we can provide for them at foundation and intermediate level."

She points out that colleges are doing much to help redress the region's educational inequality by the age of 19. As a result, 77.4 per cent of 19-year-olds have level two attainment, compared to the English average of 75.7 per cent.

"In the years between 16 and 18 we are clearly doing a good job," Ms Coleman added. "But it still needs to be better. We cannot afford for young people to be three years behind in their attainment."

That is why the LSC has set up a unique project in the Yorkshire and Humberside region that specifically targets youngsters with low aspirations.

It involves setting up collaborations of schools, colleges and work-based training providers working on a geographical basis, rather than on an institutional one.

So far five confederations have been set up, with three in Bradford and one each in Keighley and Shipley. The idea is for each confederation to put the needs of the learner first, above any other considerations. Ms Coleman said: "It's about putting the learner before the institution. It is extremely challenging for the head of an institution to take that broader view.

"The school sixth-form curriculum is between 80 and 90 per cent about A-level work, but the learner need is for something broader, something vocational. The curriculum we offer them should match their characteristics and needs.

"We have to think carefully about the diversity of the curriculum so our young people can experience success."

She said that confederations are looking at a core curriculum of A- levels to cover the academic requirements, with work-based learning providing a family of apprenticeships, and with FE providing vocational qualifications.

"It's about personalised learning," she added. "It involves a big culture change for institutions, about what it means to be learner- led and respond to the requirements of employers. It's about looking at future skills needs, not just current skills needs.

"There are very good examples emerging where people are beginning to think of learner need rather than institutional performance."

As well as having an "overwhelming number" of young people failing to achieve level two, there is also a problem with level three (A-levels or their equivalent).

She pointed out that there is only one region with a lower level three achievement rate. "In terms of people with severe literacy problems, we are the third-worst region and the second worst for numeracy problems," she added.

"We are painting a picture of a region where we have a huge journey to make in terms of increasing the skills level of young people and adults.

"We have 11.6 per cent of economically active adults who have no qualifications, compared to the England average of 10.1 per cent. We are improving on all of these statistics, but we are having to run faster to support that group."

She said many of the region's problems stem from the demise of traditional industries. In the steel industry in south Yorkshire, employment fell by 74 per cent in the period 1981 to 2002.

Ms Coleman added: "Yorkshire was an important manufacturing area, and still is to some extent. Around 26 per cent of its GDP is from manufacturing. But steel, mining and textiles are all in decline.

"With that decline comes whole populations who experience unemployment and the demise of their traditional way of life. The shift in industry isn't matched by the skills we have in the region.

"Those major industries had whole communities built around them. It was more than a job, it was a way of life."

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