Being made in England

14th February 2003 at 00:00
New ground has been broken post-14, but, says Ken Boston, the country needs to accept that industry must set vocational standards.

In announcing the Government's plan for the education of 14 to 19-year-olds, the minister for school standards David Miliband crossed an educational Rubicon. He rejected the terms academic and vocational education in favour of general and specialist.

This is not merely a matter of semantics, but a new direction with profound significance for the future provision of education and training.

It recognises that certain core subjects - among them English, mathematics, science and information and communications technology - should be part of the general educational diet for all young people.

Specialist subjects are not part of this core, yet each one has its own value, integrity and utility for those young people who are attracted to them. Examples include geology, web design, modern foreign languages, financial services, Latin, cabinet making, psychology and graphic design.

All specialist subjects are solidly grounded in curriculum. Some, such as geology and psychology, have their roots in university curricula. Others, such as web design, financial services and cabinet making, derive their curriculum from industry. All offer young people the self-esteem which comes from achievement, and the prospect of long-term rewarding careers.

For one group of subjects the role model for students might be the Oxbridge don, teacher or researcher. For the other, the role model might be the senior technician or engineer, the exacting practitioner of a trade or discipline, the creator of fine objects or materials.

Yet the roles of both technician and don have origins which reach back a thousand years. From both, young people - whether apprentices in medieval history or students of plumbing - derive self-esteem and real opportunities for employment and long-term rewarding careers. Two challenges now lie ahead of us: The first is to give all young people an opportunity to combine their general education with a choice of university-driven and industry-driven specialist subjects. This requires closer programme integration between schools, FE colleges and work places, as has occurred in various ways in other countries.

It also points to the need for more credit-based units and modules, to provide accumulating career and training opportunities that open up in front of young people rather than close off behind them.

The second challenge is to ensure comparability of standards between specialist subjects regardless of their curriculum origins: for example, to ensure that an A grade in web design at A-level ranks with an A grade in psychology. This requires clear benchmarks or standards of performance to be set by highly-qualified experts in universities and in industry.

In most western countries, criterion-referenced assessment is traditional ground for university-driven specialist subjects, in which performance is assessed by qualified examiners against specified standards on the evidence of written examinations.

The same generally applies for industry-driven curricula. For example, it is only specialist, practising and high-performing web designers who can advise on the level of achievement which might be expected of an intelligent, creative, technically-competent and hard-working 18-year-old in the area of web design (an A grade), and the level which represents minimum acceptable performance (an E grade).

In most advanced economies anything less than such industry verification would be seen not only as a disservice to students, but as an inadequate basis for workforce development and for building the national stock of human capital.

Further, achievement against industry-driven curriculum is measured by industry-qualified assessors and verifiers, using methods appropriate to the particular industry. The cognitive, technical and behavioural skills acquired through industry-driven programmes of education and training are best measured not by written examination, but by outcomes and performance.

In England, we seem to have difficulty in accepting that in vocational education the setting of standards for 14 to 19-year-olds is a task for industry experts, and that the assessment of performance must be fit for purpose just as it is in other areas of the curriculum.

A very substantial crack has now been opened up in the solid ice which has restrained the growth of vocational education. Let's hope the ice breaks and the thaw continues.

Ken Boston is chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

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