The success of vocational qualifications depends on overcoming the stigma that they are a poor alternative to academic study, says John Berkeley.
There are three big obstacles facing the national engineering initiative, which aims to boost the number of young people opting for high-quality, work-based training through new vocational courses in schools.
Unlike their counterparts in other European countries, British pupils tend not to put engineering at the top of their career lists. Vocational courses at key stage 4 (GCSE) have too often been associated with the lower-ability range or those disaffected by formal education.
Nevertheless, engineering employers believe their new initiative is vital. For once, national policy seems to be in tune with their aims. David Blunkett has been more bullish about the need for a change in attitude towards work-based learning than any other post-war Secretary of State. Without decisive action, he has said, Britain will fall further behind its international competitors. He believes that: "The development of a world-class vocational system ultimately rests on the quality of the apprenticeship system."
The view of apprentice training as a second or even third-class alternative to academic training is one still widely held by parents, teachers and others who advise young people on their post-16 options.
Becoming an A-level student requires no explanation, research for the Skills Task Force noted, whereas choosing any of the other routes "sends out the message that a young person is either not capable of studying at that level or, if they are academically able, has deliberately chosen to flout convention".
In 1997, the introduction of Part One Engineering GNVQ courses for 14 to 16-year-olds showed that students can be attracted to the subject from right across the ability range. More are seriously considering it as a career. Of the first two student cohorts, more than half of those completing the course planned to stay on to study A-levels.
Vocational GCSEs could help build on that success. But can enough schools be persuaded to offer the new courses, and will they be seen as primarily for those of lower ability or for the disaffected? Despite extra funding, few schools have chosen to offer the Part One Engineering GNVQ. Instead, they have opted for oher subjects that are less demanding and less expensive.
Schools may find it easier to promote a GCSE in engineering to parents, but without a co-ordinated programme of support the number of schools willing to consider offering it from September 2002 may not be any greater than the handful that already run Part One Engineering courses.
To introduce an engineering GCSE with existing staffing and timetabling constraints, schools need to develop partnerships with local colleges and training providers. Most Group Training Associations will offer access to facilities as long as appropriate funding can be arranged. Almost all are ready to offer support for careers guidance in schools and to consider "compact-type" commitments, such as guaranteed interviews to 16-year-olds who take the engineering GCSE.
Of all employment sectors, engineering has the largest number of apprentices being trained. However, the numbers entering work-based training as a whole have fallen over the past 10 years - from 24 per cent of 16-year-olds in 1988 to 10 per cent in 1998.
The National Training Organisation for Engineering Manufacture (EMTA) estimates the annual intake of Advanced Modern Apprentices is between 7,000 and 8,000 and that this figure needs to rise to between 10,000 and 12,000 to maintain the optimum number of 36,000 in training. To achieve such an increase will require concerted action to expand the number of training places and attract more suitable applicants.
EMTA, the Engineering Employers' Federation and the engineering trade unions believe that an engineering GCSE - if it is introduced on a large enough scale and concentrated in areas of the country with a strong local engineering community - has the potential to overcome many of the present problems. It could, they believe, help to expand engineering apprenticeships.
Only time will tell if their hopes for the vocational GCSE are shared by teachers and parents, and whether David Blunkett's vision of a "vocational education and training system that is the envy of the world" can overcome the deep-seated cultural bias that has long favoured full-time academic study.
John Berkeley OBE is EMTA senior research fellow and director of the National Apprenticeship Monitoring Unit, Department of Continuing Education, University of Warwick