Former teacher and 'Blair Babe', schools minister Jacqui Smith talks to Ian Nash about her latest task - the 14-19 education and training reform programme
Jacqui Smith knows first-hand the frustrations of teachers struggling to give school and college students a decent vocational education that carries the clout of traditional A-levels. For 11 years, before becoming the Redditch MP in 1997, she taught 14 to 19-year-olds business studies and economics - rising to become head of economics at Haybridge high school in Hagley, West Midlands, where she introduced the GNVQ.
A New Labour acolyte, she was quickly labelled as one of "Blair's Babes".
If this was disparaging or demeaning, then Jacqui Smith rapidly proved a formidable politician in her own right, serving on the Treasury select committee before being promoted to government in 1999. As one of the youngest ministers, she served for two years as parliamentary under-secretary of state at the department for education.
After ministerial posts in health and industry - where she was also deputy minister for women and equality - she returned to education as schools minister, taking charge of one of the biggest reform programmes; 14-19 education and training. Here, the frustrations of thousands of teachers, lecturers, students and employers, still waiting for those elusive "gold standard" vocational qualifications, have become her responsibility.
"I am convinced we will have them in the new 14 to 19 specialist diplomas,"
she insists. Five are due to start in 2008, though Jacqui Smith battles daily against those sceptics who say they will not happen on time. And even if she convinces them they will happen, their retort is: maybe, but they won't be the "ground-breaking" qualifications promised when the Government considered Sir Mike Tomlinson's 14 to 19 reforms.
Fourteen specialised diplomas are expected by 2013. The first five in information and communication technology, engineering, health and social care, construction and media and creative industries are planned for 2008.
Five are due by 2009 and five by 2010. She is visibly irritated when challenged to say whether the diplomas will be something radical and new or a piecing together of existing qualifications. "When I introduced GNVQs, they were a big opportunity but they were not designed along the lines employers wanted, nor were they going to give the things young people wanted to do."
The constant cry from critics of GNVQs was that they were a compromise following earlier rejected proposals to reform A-levels and not always drawing on the best existing practice.
So, will the diplomas draw on schemes that already exist? "They may. We have not decided yet. However, it is quite likely that we will want to build on the strengths of existing qualifications. But it is not for me to decide. It is for those responsible for delivering high-quality qualifications and for those who use them."
This puts the employer in the driving seat. "We have diploma partnerships led by the Sector Skills Councils (set up to represent the interests of different industries) with employers at the heart of it all."
She takes seriously criticisms from the Confederation of British Industry and other employer groups that too few school and college-leavers have the functional literacy, numeracy and other skills industry needs. But, she says, instead of whingeing about it, they should seize the chance to actively shape the qualifications they need.
"Functional English and maths are at the heart of the specialised diplomas (which have a vocational element) and the general diplomas," she says.
But demands on school pupils and college students run deeper, into the whole assessment regime. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is working on a range of "functional skills elements", including information and communication technologies, in which everyone must become competent.
"To get a grade C or above in English or maths GCSE you will have to demonstrate efficiency in the functional skills elements," says Jacqui Smith. To achieve such goals, there must be clear collaboration between schools, colleges and employers.
"This is why we have the Learning and Skills Council driving local partnerships, in co-operation with local authorities. It is hard to envisage how this entitlement will be delivered without schools and colleges drawing on the expertise of the wider institutions."
She rejects the arguments of critics who suggest that the current schools white paper will lead to destructive competition between schools and colleges. "Look at the trust school model. One way I can imagine using a trust is to help collaboration across 14 to 19 partnerships - bringing in the employers, colleges, higher education and all with something to contribute. "The white paper is about institutions identifying and building on their strengths. Collaboration is far more effective if it starts from a position of clearly identified strengths."
She cites the Wolverhampton 14-19 pathfinder project as a model. "One of the things Peter Hawthorne, the pathfinder co-ordinator, says is that while there is collaboration, it nevertheless reflects the autonomy of different institutions.
"When we have organisations that understand their strengths and recognise different areas of expertise, we are much more likely then to see collaboration than if we have Whitehall saying 'you, you and you will work together on this'."
The role of the LSC and its 47 local offices is to enable collaboration and encourage the growth of ideas and initiatives to ensure this. There are currently around 90,000 14 to 16-year-olds dividing their time between school, college and workplace training. This is set to grow to 200,000 by around 2010.
Challenges under the collective title of "increased flexibility" range from tackling the problems of disaffected youths to identifying schemes to help the gifted and talented. Issues from special educational needs and ethnic diversity to e-learning are included.
"Ten years ago, when I was teaching, it was pretty unusual to see anyone under 16 in a college. Now, it is a very different picture. I was at the College of North East London the other day and there were hundreds of 14 to 16-year-olds, really motivated by what they were doing.
"Yes, we need to tackle pastoral care arrangements for them and the staff.
There are a lot of issues that need careful consideration. But the colleges are up for it and this work is creating real opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds."
Everything is being considered and evaluated in detail by the Government, LSC and other agencies, Jacqui Smith insists. From functional and basic skills to increased flexibility programmes, from partnership and collaboration to the new diplomas.
"I have not, in all my 20 years as teacher and politician, come across a more rigorous evaluation than what we are doing now with 14-19 education and training."