Don't shirk the work experience

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
There is no point having qualifications if you are not delivering essential skills on the way," says Ron McLone, chief executive of OCR, the exam board. "It is not a choice between 'Do we or don't we have them?'

Qualifications have to be relevant."

This belief is a driving force behind much of what the awarding body does.

It also points to why it has embarked on such a huge programme of work-related learning exams, syllabuses and accreditation schemes.

How many people have a stab at a career and fail? McLone agrees that too often the reality of work falls well short of expectations. But those who try and fail are often the lucky ones. Chances are they will pick up on a suitable career in the process. Too many "succeed" and stay in ill-fitting jobs or fail even to take their place on the starting blocks. It is extraordinary that work, the key determinant of our wealth - and for many their health and happiness - still gets so little attention at school.

The Government recognises the need for more rigorous work-related learning in school and college and has set aside a mandatory 5 per cent of curriculum time for such experience. But what does that add up to? It could be as little as one-hour 20-minutes a week on shelf-filling or simulated office work. McLone sees the answer in "well-directed, co-ordinated and accredited" schemes of work.

Why accredited? "Because it adds to the value of the experience for the young person and gives them something tangible to show a prospective employer," he says.

With all the fuss over the target to give 50 per cent of young people higher education experience by 2010, it is easy to forget that the majority of school leavers will still go to work, he says. "I want to see a 100 per cent target with work-related learning for everyone.

"I have always believed that work-related learning is part of the general pattern of education that should be there for all. In the days of CSEs, there was a good deal of thinking about the needs of kids going to work.

Then GCSEs offered motor vehicle studies, rural science, horticulture and agriculture and so on."

The case for universal work-related learning is obvious, he insists. "We all start out learning and end up applying what we learn. The question is: How? And when is the best time? Whether the job is as a carpenter or a solicitor, there is no sense in leaving vocational learning until people have left school."

The loss of nerve by successive governments playing to the galleries of Middle England has not always served the awarding bodies well.

"Back in the mid-1990s, the Government tried to close down our GCSEs and take away some of our subjects in a rationalisation of titles," he says.

"But some of the titles lost at the time were the very things to get people thinking about work-related learning."

McLone argues that OCR does not wait for the tides of political change - instead, it pre-empts them to give schools, colleges and employers the support they need. Ofsted, the inspectorate, has identified shortcomings in work-related learning: a lack of appreciation of how much effort employers make, and the fact that schools are reluctant to advertise workplace opportunities, fearing they will be swamped by demand. Quite simply, more support is needed.

McLone's solution chimes with that of the inspectors. "We give that necessary support. That is why we offer a range of programmes and qualifications on three levels - learning about work, learning through work and learning for work," he says.

"All schools are going to be inspected on their work-related learning, so we need to help them. I think we are in a unique position to do so."

To address the wider concerns of industry and commerce, OCR can point out that it has its roots in the RSA, which was not just an exam board, but provided unique expertise to support industry.

"This has helped us develop our range of ICT (information and communications technology) qualifications for everyone from primary schools to the workplace," says McLone.

"A key issue is career preparation, and the best preparation has to be a mixture of the academic and practical, regardless of ability or aspiration.

The Tomlinson working group is anticipating some of this in its review of 14-19 qualifications."

So, is a baccalaureate the answer? "Yes and no. We need change, but we must build on what we have, use the best of what exists and not try to start again from scratch."

The past is littered with stop-go efforts that have yielded little. "I don't think the education system would take huge changes from what we have," McLone says. But then the bac, or any such new diploma, will not be around before 2010 and the issue of work-related learning is too pressing to wait.

"This is why we address the full range of issues with qualifications and accreditation in career planning, employment preparation, vocational GCSEs, vocational certificates, Young Enterprise awards and our work experience quality mark. It covers the whole range of skills and is wider than that of other awarding bodies," he says.

McLone's belief that schools, colleges and employers need considerably more help is not wishful or "we know best" thinking. There has been a dramatic rise in demand from teachers for OCR's in-service education and training courses over recent months. From April to June this year, 8,000 signed-up for its in-service-training programmes. By the end of the year, the number is predicted to reach 24,000.

Feedback from OCR staff working with Tomlinson (on 14-19 reforms) is that the pattern is widespread. "It may be partly to do with the decline in the local education authority role for advisory teachers, but that alone cannot explain the rise in interest."

Undoubtedly, the new statutory demands and the need for work-related learning to have currency with schools, colleges, employers, pupils and parents are having a big influence. But, as history shows, short-term gains under huge schemes such as the 1980s pound;1bn Technical and Vocational Education Initiative dwindled to nothing when the cash and political will dried up.

McLone is keen to do better this time. "If we don't get work-related learning right, people will continue to believe we are not serious about meeting the needs of the whole community. Employers will continue to believe that too much of what we provide in education fails to address the way they work."

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