Linda Blackburne reports on the new direction urged for 14-19 policy. An end to the "debilitating" divide between academic and vocational education is called for in a report published this week by the Royal Society of Arts.
The report by three senior academics argues that the Government push to develop vocational courses leading to separate qualifications for 14 to 19 year-olds has resulted in a damaging split between able and less able students.
Professor Richard Pring, of Oxford University's department of educational studies, Roger Crombie White, of the University of the West of England, and David Brockington, co-ordinator of the West of England's Accredited Learning Centre in Bristol, claim Government policies have led to a two-track system of education and training - "one for those deemed most able, and one for the practically intelligent and the rest".
Their recommendations are in line with recent calls for a unified system of qualifications, based on a common core curriculum, for 14 to 19-year-olds, by all the leading organisations representing state and independent school heads and principals of further education and sixth form colleges.
The report argues that the current system has led to a "false dichotomy", with academically able students following a traditional liberal education, while the emphasis for those on vocational courses was on practical, work-related skills.
Vocational courses for students over 16, which have been in place longest, have been deemed to be low status, leading to low status jobs. Last year's decision by Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Council, to extend vocational courses to 14-year-olds implied that they would be taken by pupils "who fail within the tradition of liberal education", says the report.
"Our proposal for a unified common core for the 14-19 age group embraces an alternative tradition of learning which will bridge for all learners the unnecessary and damaging gap between the academic and the vocational."
Their common core comprises personal, social and health education; creative arts; technology; information technology; communication; numeracy, economic and political awareness; environmental awareness; citizenship; equal opportunities; careers education and guidance; and residential activities.
They call for the recognition of "practical intelligence", not least as a route into the more abstract and theoretical understanding; the restructuring of unemployment and welfare policy into a re-employment strategy; financial support for all who continue with learning, not just for those who are declared academic; and the promotion of an education system which focuses upon personal development and encourages a gradual shift of responsibility for learning from teacher to student.
On the creative arts, the authors believe that our culture fails sufficiently to recognise, value or reward the aesthetic mode of intelligence, even though, for all of us, our re-creation relies entirely on experiences that touch our senses and enrich the "deep, intuitive well of understanding that is at the heart of what it means to be human."
On economic and political awareness, they say: "The recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the restructuring of the UK economy during the Thatcher years of government, are social phenomena which have altered the perception by learners of their life chances. They see themselves as consumers in the market before having any idea of themselves as producers."
The authors say it is remarkable how little political education is in the traditional curriculum, given that one of the most important responsibilities of Western society is to prepare the next generation for active and intelligent participation in the functioning of that democracy.
And on communication, they argue that abilities such as putting across a point of view, handling an argument, expressing strongly felt emotions, reaching agreements, taking part in meetings, making plans with others, registering complaints, and taking responsibility for one's actions, all require a broader programme than the traditional 3 Rs.
The academics are fiercely critical of the growth of "unaccountable" quangos and the politicisation of education which they claim has been encouraged by Conservative ministers. In particular, they criticise the reform of school inspections which has led to the independent role of HMIs being "decimated".
David Brockington said: "We are still living in a world which is hugely divided, reflected in the way we treat different human beings in their learning. If we do a survey of the sons and daughters of members of the Conservative Party, certainly of members of the Cabinet, very few of them are recipients of the Youth Training Scheme and its constricted resources. People say to me: 'Of course it's like that.' But we take so much for granted about things being unequal for different people. That really feels to us to be fundamentally wrong."
The academics say markets and customer choice do not result in a better education system. Markets require regulations, and the regulations are being changed so often and arbitrarily, that long-term policy is impossible.
"Sixth-form colleges, which once co-operated with the nearby further education college, are now set in opposition. Schools and colleges too often persuade young people to embark upon unsuitable courses because registration means money. Private agencies undercut established training providers in pursuit of short-term profit," the report says.
"There is a nastiness in education, a politicisation of it, which was not the case a few years ago, and which obstructs serious and impartial examination of the issues we have identified in this document."
14-19 Education and Training: Implementing a Unified System of Learning, by Roger Crombie White, Richard Pring and David Brockington, is available from Lesley James, RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6EZ, price Pounds 7. 50 (includes postage).
Main recommendations of the RSA 14 to 19 report:
* A unified system of 14-19 qualifications
* A common curriculum core to bridge the academic-vocational divide
* A modular framework for 14 to 19 learning
* Locally or regionally accountable authorities to discuss the curriculum, assessment and organisation of learning
* Financial reform to encourage private investment in training and staff development.
* The creation of a well-resourced, flexible, further and higher education system able to respond to adults' learning styles.
* The restructuring of unemployment and welfare policy into a re-employment strategy
* Regularly and properly-funded staff development opportunities for teachers and lecturers.