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Routes to fulfilment

New vocational GCSEs will allow education to meet the diverse needs of young people, writes David Blunkett.

Education is not just a means to the end of finding a job: it should lead people to a lifetime of interest and exploration and inspire an enquiring mind. Such interests should be broad and fulfilling. We should be offering young people a wide range of options.

One of the great failures of post-war education in Britain was its neglect of vocational routes. This government is changing that because we believe it is not enough for young people to pass the exams they need to get a job. They need to be given confidence in their ability and skills. Re-engaging many young people with learning is the first step to making accumulated knowledge meaningful to them.

The Learning and Skills Act will transform post-16 education and secure a step-change in our performance. It has laid the foundations for all young people to receive the advice and support they need to succeed both at school and beyond.

The Learning and Skills Council will unite for the first time education and skills training into a single planning and funding system. But the real difference will be in the way these organisations work in partnership to deliver a coherent, co-ordinated approach, ending the complex, bureaucratic arrangements of old.

The neglect of vocational skills that has led to employers having trouble filling jobs and stopped young people from taking control of their future. If we measure success solely by academic qualifications, we are undervaluing those whose talents lie in other areas.

If they have the aptitude, young people are offered the chance to take up work-based learning through a Modern Apprenticeship. But within school we also need to build a culture of apprenticeship that offers a path through training.

We want to give pupils the option of taking predominantly vocational courses from the age of 14 andsupport them if they choose an apprenticeship at 16. There will be two clear routes. These can be combined, allowing students to take vocational GCSEs and A-levels alongside their academic equivalents.

Teachers know that if teenagers do not understand, are not good at and do not see the point of academic study, their behaviour will suffer. Offering young people choices that interest them and that make the most of their talents means they have a stake in their own future. Vocational GCSEs will be available in subjects including manufacturing, information technology, health care and engineering and will enable youngsters to move on to apprenticeships and into jobs. They will also help in the drive to tackle truancy.

Those who want to do a particular course will be supported with travel grants, equipment costs and learning materials if necessary. In many parts of the country, education maintenance allowances are a real incentive for staying on.

We are backing these changes with substantial funding - an extra pound;18 million in 2002 and pound;20m in 2003 to support the new courses. The extra money will provide funding for 40,000 part-time vocational placements in 20023 and another 40,000 the following year.

We know that specialist schools are having successes at GCSE. They are giving their pupils the skills to make a real contribution to the economy and a real difference to their lives. I am pleased that schools such as Small Heath in Birmingham, which became a technology college in 1994, are having an effect: 53 per cent of its pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C last year - an increase of 165 per cent since 1994.

Britain's economic strength relies on the talents of its people. We must ensure that the young have the chance to develop their potential to the full - not just for their own sake but for society as a whole.

The writer is Secretary of State for Education and Employment

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