Is there any hope of getting good applied education in our schools? Yet another critical report on General National Vocational Qualifications last week further pointed up the difficulties. There has also been the long struggle to sort out what technology in the national curriculum should be. One problem is that it is unfamiliar territory. Most of the school curriculum is based on subjects - the fundamental ways of understanding the world.
They are organised around their particular ways of making sense. Science depends on creating pictures and checking them against external reality, mathematics on deducing from axioms, and history on sifting the documentary evidence. Literature, art and music are ways of illuminating what it is to be human.
The organising principle for applied education is quite different. It is a class of practical activities. We are most accustomed to it in higher education, where medicine is centred on the prevention and cure of disease, and engineering or designing and making artefacts.
Both national curriculum technology and GNVQs have had difficulty in delineating their domains. School technology started off as a heterogeneous collection of activities, including woodwork, domestic science, art, business and information technology, and then expanded to encompass the whole world when it became problem-solving without a specified knowledge base. Subsequently, it was reined in to become designing and making quality products, but the position of food has not been satisfactorily resolved.
GNVQs essentially started in the wrong place. An approach developed for workplace training (where it is not doing too well either) was inappropriately transposed. A set of titles like business, health and social care, art and design, leisure and tourism, and manufacturing was arrived at and regarded as unproblematic. The energy and effort went into getting them into the approved format.
But taking the purpose and content for granted has led to three fundamental flaws. GNVQs, as they have emerged, tend not to be coherent, frequently do not lead anywhere and are too narrowing to constitute good education. Lack of coherence has probably been responsible for the manufacturing GNVQs' failure to take off. Leisure and tourism is also a strange mixture, running together work in travel agencies and leisure centres. How often has someone who envisaged selling holidays found themselves learning to supervise a swimming pool and vice versa?
The intended destination is also often unclear. One of the GNVQ successes has been health and social care, which forms part of a recognisable ladder, but where do manufacturing, the built environment and media studies fit in? Employers say they were not consulted about these qualifications and have little use for them, and, in any case, many advanced GNVQ students are thinking of higher education.
GNVQs have, however, been introduced alongside GCE A-levels, the main route into university, and we have business, art and design, technology, science and media studies, in both camps (as A-levels, practical subjects tend to be defended as "academic"). Why should students do one rather than the other? Do those who can, do A-levels, and those who can't, do GNVQs?
Certainly, the GCSE entry profiles suggest that this is often the case, which inevitably relegates applied education to second-class status. One way forward for GNVQs would be for them to be focused on particular technician and intermediate level occupations. A sort of upgraded BTEC "National" if you like. But providing that kind of education on a large scale for those not aiming at the target jobs might be thought unduly narrowing.
Good applied education is needed in schools for at least two reasons. First, international experience suggests that many young people learn more easily through applying knowledge than acquiring it for its own sake, and, secondly, Britain has traditionally been better at making discoveries than putting them to wealth-creating use. It may be that, for it to be fully accepted, GNVQs will have to be reframed.
At present they come in large packets. Sir Ron Dearing, in his review of education 16 to 19, suggested that they should be available in similar sizes to AS- and A-levels, and I hope the new Government will take this up. I hope, too, that it will think again about its predecessor's rejection of the proposal to call them applied AS- and A-levels (and also consider applied GCSEs). The ambiguity between, for example, A-level business studies and the business GNVQ could then be resolved by them becoming one. This would not entail the loss of either approach but building on the best of both.
Even so applied education is not likely to enjoy "parity of esteem", at least in the short term. Education in this country is a bit like a tree. It is academic study that carries people up the trunk towards the prestigious occupations. Early closure into applied education usually means a more limited horizon from a lower branch.
Applied education alone will not achieve equivalent standing; it has to be in combination. Moving to a norm of five areas of study at A-level, both academic and applied, would make this possible. It would enable university engineering departments, for example, to select on technology, as well as maths and physics, thereby not only recruiting more realistically, but also raising the status of applied education.
The Government is reportedly unsure as to what to do about education 16-19. In my view, it should revive Sir Gordon Higginson's proposal for five freely-chosen subjects. This would create the conditions for breadth without seeking to prescribe or impose it. It also opens the way for applied education to take its rightful place in schools.
Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University