The Government hopes vocational GCSEs will inspire less academic pupils to match the skills of their peers abroad. But can they overcome the nation's prejudice against work-related learning? Jon Slater reports
There are some things the British have never been good at: showing our feelings in public; producing drinkable wine and, of course, vocational education.
Report after report shows that, when it comes to giving young people technical or vocational skills, Britain lags hopelessly behind its overseas competitors.
The problem is not a new one: as far back as 1884, the Samuelson Commission on Technical Instruction warned that non-academic education was not up to scratch.
More recently, the National Skills Task Force highlighted the chasm between the UK and mainland Europe in "intermediate-level" skills. The Germans, for instance, are twice as likely as the British to have a qualification at national vocational qualification level 3 (equivalent to A-level).
Now the Government has decided to act. Vocational GCSEs are to be introduced to provide youngsters heading for the workplace with opportunities that their academic peers take for granted.
Few doubt Education Secretary David Blunkett's commitment to vocational education. He is, after all, a former FE lecturer and has been vocal about the need to provide "education for all", not just the academically gifted.
But he faces an uphill task convincing sceptical parents and teachers that it's a good idea for children to take vocational courses at 14. Snobbery over the value of vocational courses is another peculiarly British trait.
Attempts by previous governments to change attitudes have failed. The last Conservative government, for instance, tried to boost the standard of job-related learning by bringing the various qualifications under one umbrella.
But the national vocational qualifications (NVQs) and their more academic sibling, general national vocational qualifications (GNVQs) have been dogged by accusations that they lack rigour. They have not proved as popular with employers, teachers, parents or students as had been hoped.
They may be notionally equivalent to academic qualifications, but the public perception - reinforced by influential figures such as Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools - lingers that GCSEs, A-levels and degrees have greater value.
Despite their different system, the Scots have tended to be as dismissive of vocational education as the English. "In a sense the position in Scotland is worse. At least in England there has been a sense of a separate vocational route. Because general education in Scotland has had a more democratic base that route has not developed," says Professor David Raffe of the University of Edinburgh.
Does this really matter? After all, Britain has muddled through by concentrating on academic education for well over a century. The consensus is that the answer must be yes: the failure to tackle the vocational skills issue could have a real impact on our future.
In recent years, numerous research projects have pointed the finger at our academic curriculum as a major cause of disaffection among young people.
The Government clearly believes that the British mistrust of vocational education has helped to create our long tail of educational underachievers. The Department of Education and Employment acknowledges that more than 32,000 young people leave school every year without a single qualification. Some experts believe the number is higher because pupils who leave school early are excluded from the figures.
"If you're a young person who's just going to get a couple of Ds (at academic GCSEs) then why bother?" says Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University. "In Germany, pupils on vocational courses achieve higher-level qualifications than pupils of similar ability in Britain who take the academic route."
Moreover poor vocational education will damage the economy as low-skilled jobs are replaced by those requiring skilled workers. The skills task force found that "over a quarter of businesses report significant skills shortages". Craft and skilled trades accounted for almost a quarter of all skills-shortage vacancies reported.
The Scots are tackling the problem with the "Higher Still" reforms which attempt to integrate vocational education into the existing academic framework.
In England, the Government's answer has been to create a new "vocational ladder" for young people turned off by the traditional curriculum.
The vocational GCSEs, to be introduced in September 2002 will be the first rung in this ladder (see box right). Ministers hope that the new courses - which replace GNVQs - will encourage all pupils to mix and match the academic and vocational, giving them a broader education.
Young people who wish to continue on the work-related path will then move to on-the-job modern apprenticeships or school and college-based vocational A-levels before going on to foundation or traditional degree courses.
"This is a potentially very important development," says Professor Smithers. "Our current arrangements don't cater for the bottom third or half of the ability range. The Government's plan doesn't fob anyone off as second best. It doesn't separate young people into sheep and goats."
Businesses have also welcomed the move. "The objective (of high-status vocational education for schoolchildren) is right and long overdue," says Margaret Murray, head of education at the Confederation of British Industry.
Her optimism is backed up by an evaluation of a recent pilot project that gave 15 and 16-year-olds the chance to pursue "vocational and work-related" learning, rather than purely acdemic study. It found improvements in attendance and attainment among the pupils, many of them disaffected, on the projects.
However, teachers' leaders are more sceptical. John Bangs, head of education and equal opportunities at the National Union of Teachers, believes that the new exams could cause staffing and timetabling problems in many schools.
"It raises questions at GCSE level about how you deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. This is a major, major issue for small and even medium-sized secondaries," he says. He is also concerned that in attempting to boost the prestige of vocational education, ministers may damage some of the very children they want to help. In particular, pupils who may have been proud to pass a lower-level vocational qualification, may see themselves as failures if they do not reach grade C at vocational GCSE.
"GNVQs provided kids who wouldn't normally have got qualifications with a sense of achievement. With vocational GCSEs you haven't got that. Kids will get a low-grade GCSE instead. They won't have the same sense of pride. I don't want to be too gloomy but this will only help if we don't end up with two streams (of pupils). If there's a genuine mix-and-match (of academic and vocational) then it will do."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, welcomes the principle of vocational GCSEs. But he also says that both large and small secondaries will struggle to add the courses to timetables.
"Many schools already find it difficult to put on GCSEs in German, Spanish and drama. Any school looking to offer an extra qualifications will probably have to drop something else.
"The courses they offer will depend on the pupils they have and the skills of their teachers. There is likely to be an increase in the number of courses linked with local further education colleges."
As the CBI's Margaret Murray says, teachers will be crucial to the success of the vocational GCSEs. If teachers see the new courses as second-best to traditional GCSEs, then that attitude is likely to be picked up by their pupils.
But the attitude of the CBI's members will also be crucial. If businesses don't reward or single out those people who make the effort to get the qualifications, then students will see little point in doing them.
"It is employers who give recognition to qualifications. What you have to do is create ladders that lead from school to employment. GNVQs didn't lead anywhere," says Professor Smithers.
"We don't have a good history in these things. We have had a buccaneering approach to employment. In some cases a requirement to have qualifications has been viewed as a restraint of trade.
"Qualifications in plumbing are not valued because plumbers don't have to have them. The problem with employers is that they tend to just look at key skills. They don't look at paying people with qualifications more or promoting people with these qualifications."
NEW CHOICES AT GCSE
From September 2002, vocational GCSEs will be available in eight subjects. They are: art and design, business,engineering, health and social care, information and communication technology, leisure and tourism, manufacturing, science.