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Skills for all, not just wood-hewers

Alex Wood is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh

The drive for a more vocational curriculum is not only a Scottish phenomenon but also being pursued across Europe. In Germany, the selective system makes such a move easy to accommodate. Quite simply, it is a trend that does not affect the gymnasium or selective secondary, and can influence the curriculum in technical schools without wider ramifications. Not so in Scotland.

The Scottish Executive's Determined to Succeed strategy assumed that the curriculum did not sufficiently develop the core skills necessary for success in the world of work. Skills for Work courses, certificated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, recognised that to change the curriculum it was necessary to change the exam system (the underlying assumption being that, if it isn't externally assessed, it won't be well taught). A clutch of other initiatives Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network courses, Schools of Ambition, enhanced links between FE colleges and schools reinforced these trends.

Even some private schools have invested in the enterprise curriculum and Skills for Work courses, but the main pressure for a "flexible curriculum" has been on schools serving our poorest communities, with large numbers heading for the "not in education, employment or training" statistics. In such schools, a significant minority is disengaged from large chunks of the school experience. For their sakes, let alone the economy and social fabric of our country, education must capture their imaginations and develop their skills. Some key questions, however, must first be answered.

Politicians and entrepreneurs pose a false dichotomy. It is not necessarily from academic subjects that youngsters are disengaged, nor do their interests necessarily gravitate naturally to the vocational. Many academic subjects, including the creative arts and the social subjects, remain popular when taught with vision, while some vocational subjects are struggling to survive. Indeed, if only subjects into which young people opted were sustained, it might well be economically vital areas such as maths and science that disappeared. Moreover, if smaller schools serving poorer communities have timetables increasingly dominated by vocational courses, how many traditional academic courses can they maintain? If fewer than before, then the present small academic cohort in such schools will be removed by parents, and the move to de facto junior secondaries will be accelerated.

We need a clear political steer. First of all, is our government committed to the comprehensive system and does it want schools that prepare young people better for the world of work? If so, vocational skills must be compulsory for all, not merely for the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Secondly, a review is required of how we accommodate the vocational core in an already overcrowded curriculum.

Finally, before students vote with their feet and ditch vital areas of knowledge, we must ensure that the quality of learning and teaching across all subjects reaches the levels achieved in the best.

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