The Education Secretary believes vocational courses will improve pupils' exam results. Sadly, the figures don't bear out her faith. Fran Abrams visits two schools which are taking opposite approaches New Labour, as we all know, loves a vision. And so, a couple of weeks ago, in a speech to exam officials in London, Estelle Morris spelled out hers. Tucked in there, among the school-leaving certificates and the graduation ceremonies, was a hitherto rather poor relation: work-based learning.
Things were about to change, Ms Morris said. Henceforth, these underrated qualifications would take a proud place in the educational pantheon. Vocational GCSEs, to be introduced this autumn, should form an equal partnership with their academic cousins, and pupils aged between 14 and 16 would be encouraged to embark on a programme of work placements. But the new Education Secretary's pronouncement begged a simple question: why?
This is not a frivolous enquiry, for evidence of the benefits of work-related education, published recently by Ms Morris's own department, is at best inconclusive. And though the approach has many advocates, their reasons for wanting it are many and varied.
Here is the Education Secretary's own explanation of why we need more emphasis on work-related courses: "Currently, there is not enough recognition of the vocational qualifications that young people are taking. Too many young people are turned off education because of the low esteem attached to non-academic routes."
So, vocational courses could be put to two useful purposes, according to Ms Morris. First, they could improve pupils' qualifications. Second, they might help to keep some disaffected teenagers in education and off the streets.
For those in search of evidence to show whether the minister's theories are correct, a look at the research commissioned by her department is useful. This 100-page report, published last year, tries to provide the answers.
Researchers from SWA Consulting looked at 35 work-based learning projects with widely varying sizes and aims. Although the participants' exam results were close to those of others in their year groups at school, they said, this was "a positive finding, given that disaffection was a criterion for selection in many projects".
A closer examination of the figures show a rather less positive picture, though. In 1999, 28.6 per cent of participants gained five or more GCSEs at A*-C. Other pupils in their year groups did slightly better, with an average of 31.5 per cent reaching that level. But a control group of non-participants, meant to be of similar make-up to those taking part, did best of all with 35.6 per cent.
The researchers said the sample in the control group must have been faulty. But to put it kindly, they certainly didn't come up with clear evidence that work-related learning made for better exam performance.
Let us move, then, to the second of Ms Morris's criteria. Here, the evidence seems a little more positive. Of the 35 projects, 12 listed better motivation among their outcomes. Only three, though, said their work had led to less truancy or lower rates of exclusion.
The figures are positive, though, with an unauthorised absence rate of 2.5 per cent for those in the projects in Year 11, compared with 2.8 per cent for their year groups and 3.45 per cent for the control group. Good news, then, for schools with disaffected pupils. But as the researchers themselves pointed out, better morale probably owed little to the work-based content of the schemes.
"For many students, the biggest boost to self-esteem and confidence was being selected for what was seen to be a high-status initiative," they commented. Interestingly, Ms Morris did not advance the third, perhaps more obvious, argument for work-related courses - jobs. And she had good reason, for schools do not generally react well to the idea of selecting pupils at 14 for a life of plumbing or plastering.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says he would like to do away with the terms "academic" and "vocational". "In my view, all courses should have a theoretical and a practical element, in different balances," he says. "We must be very wary of dividing pupils into academic 'sheep' and non-academic 'goats'."
The research group's findings bore out his fear that once on a strictly vocational road, it is hard to turn back. Pupils in work-related projects were slightly less likely to stay in education at 16 and slightly more likely to go straight into work, they said.
In fact, one of the most striking successes among the projects studied by SWA was achieved by Aztec in Merton, south London, where a group of 22 students did a two-year "trowel trades" training course with the backing of the Construction Industry Training Board. Every one of the 15 who completed the course went on to further construction training with the charity Rathbone CI, which helped run the course.
What distinguished this scheme from many of the others was its straightforward emphasis on job-related training. As the researchers commented, successful projects tended to be those which were clear from the start about what they hoped to achieve.
For the rest of the world, their findings leaves a problem with which to grapple. Should job-related learning be about jobs, or simply about motivation?
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research in Liverpool, believes it should be about jobs. He also thinks the problem is one of culture. If we start to value "making and doing" in the same way that we already value an aptitude for history, or physics, he says, those fears about "sheep" and "goats" will soon disappear.
"The message goes out to schools that you need to do well in academic subjects. Plans for 50 per cent to go to university by 2010 will simply mean the other 50 per cent are left out," he says.
"We are very good at traditional education, but when it comes to plumbing or plastering it's a different story. The whole quality of life in the country is affected by the fact that we don't have good routes from school into work with vocational qualifications that are valued."
Alternatively, perhaps schools worried about "sheep" and "goats" could try the method of the "Motivated by Choice" scheme on Merseyside. It kept pupils out of the local shopping mall by offering its graduates a celebration event at Liverpool Football Club. Not surprisingly, 220 made it to the end.
STOP LISTENING TO THE CIVIL SERVANTS. THE TRADITIONAL ROUTE
At Arden school in Solihull, just a few miles from Saltley, pupils can learn Spanish, Chinese or Latin but they can't take vocational courses.
The school's headteacher, David Chamberlain, says he had planned to introduce general national vocational qualifications but decided to wait until "vocational GCSEs" were introduced this year.
With just 1 per cent of its pupils taking free school meals or speaking a language other than English at home, Arden is a very different school from Saltley.
One of Mr Chamberlain's main problems in introducing vocational courses will be convincing parents of their worth.
"We do have youngsters for whom GCSE isn't appropriate. But our problem is dealing with parents who say they want their children to do them anyway. They worry that vocational courses are second best," he says.
Despite that, he is keen to introduce courses in information technology, business studies and health and social care, though he feels, as staff at Saltley do, that they should be part of a balanced curriculum rather than a pathway into work. Despite the fact that Estelle Morris did her teaching practice here and recently attended speech day, he is not impressed by recent pronouncements.
"I would love to know who they talk to for feedback. Here in the Midlands we feel they talk to a limited number of people in London or they rely on their civil servants, quite honestly."
MANUFACTURING MAKETH MAN. THE VOCATIONAL ROUTE
Fifteen year-old Daniel Hasson and his classmates have been manufacturing tampons.
Not an occupation most boys would relish, perhaps, but Daniel, a pupil at Saltley school in Birmingham, is feeling rather pleased with himself.
Halfway through an intermediate level general national vocational qualification course in business and manufacturing, Daniel has lined up a training post with Survirn Engineering in Birmingham. He expects to get paid work there this summer.
"I went there on work experience and they offered me a three-year apprenticeship," he says. "Before I started this course,I thought manufacturing was just making things, but now I know more about it and all the money that goes into it."
The tampon-manufacturing takes place at a local health and beauty firm, Accantia, where the 35 Year 10 boys on the course run their own production line.
Saltley is a mixed school on the outskirts of Birmingham, where two-thirds of children have free school meals.
Here, according to the headteacher, Anne Cole, vocational courses have been a godsend. Before the school took on GNVQ courses five years ago, the only option for those pupils unlikely to achieve at GCSE was "certificates of achievement" which were of little use to employers.
But, despite the perception that these pupils are doing better, levels of exclusion and truancy have changed little. And the school is not keen on the idea that it might be seen as some kind of training centre for skilled workers.
"We are not here to be an advertisement for vocational education," Ms Cole says. "We see it very much as a strand of a whole package. It's about providing an appropriate curriculum and also providing really motivated staff to deliver it."